Four months ago, Palm Coast firefighters voted to unionize. They formed local 4807 on June 14, but the city did not recognize the union. The two sides disagree over what ranks the union would consist of. The firefighters are arguing that their bargaining unit should include firefighters and lieutenants. The city, besides objecting to the formation of a union, objects to the inclusion of the lieutenants in the same bargaining unit. (There are 15 lieutenants in the department and some 45 firefighters).
The matter went to a public hearing, and on Friday, Suzanne Choppin, a hearing officer with the Public Employees Relations Commission—a state agency—heard both sides. She has 45 days to make a recommendation to the commission, which will then rule one way or the other, possibly not until the new year. The hearing was a window into the department’s workings, procedures and lines of authority as both sides see them, although there appears to be little question that the formation of a bargaining unit (or two units) is a matter of time: when the unionization effort began, more than 70 percent, including 10 of the 15 lieutenants, voted to unionize.
The Palm Coast Fire Department consists of five stations, 62 men and women, including the chief, the deputy chief, a fire marshal one inspector, three captains, and 15 lieutenants. The rest are firefighters. The department also has 50 volunteer firefighters.
Friday’s hearing was held at the Palm Coast Community Center on Palm Coast Parkway. Choppin led the hearing by phone, from Tallahassee. In the room (the same room where the Palm Coast City Council holds its meetings), some 20 firefighters sat on one side, a few city officials sat on the other. Those officials included Fire Chief Mike Beadle, City Manager Jim Landon and Gary Glassman, a city attorney. James John Maher, a notary, also sat with the city group, swearing in the witnesses.
The hearing was relatively cordial. There was little banter or niceties before the meeting, with each side keeping to itself. Landon walked in a few minutes after the informal part of the hearing had begun, when Choppin was on the line, going over ground rules and paperwork, but before she officially opened the hearing.
Jason Laughren, a lieutenant and a leader of the unionizing effort, was the first witness, with the firefighters’ representative—Manly Bolin, a district vice president with the International Association of Fire Fighters—doing the questioning.
Bolin’s intention was to establish that lieutenants, while wielding some authority over the rank and file, are like the men on the line—sharing their duties and expectations more than imposing them. Bolin wanted to show that their supervisory roles are incidental or administrative rather than defining or ultimately binding: in almost every regard, lieutenants’ key decisions involving others have to be ratified by captains or the chief. Laughren said firefighters and lieutenants share sleeping quarters (in the three new stations, they each have individual bunk rooms), they saher the same toilet and shower facilities, they eat together, they rotate the cooking, and after meals, lieutenants help clean up and wash dishes “in most stations.” Lieutenants are also expected to help keep the stations clean, replace hoses on trucks, wash them, help reset and restock medical supplies. During down time, they intermingle in the TV and day rooms with the rank and file (as they very much did in the hearing room Friday).
The highest degree of discipline lieutenants can exercise is a verbal reprimand, “but we still have to inform our captain,” Laughren said. Anything above a verbal reprimand has to be approved by the captain, and obviously can be overridden. Lieutenants do sit on the interview board for the new hires, but so do rank and file firefighters. Lieutenants conduct employee evaluations but don’t ratify them: that’s the captain’s and chief’s job. Only the chief decides whether to award merit raises. Lieutenant can neither suspend a firefighter nor approve time off or invoke overtime (which is not being allowed this year anyway, except in the rarest circumstances).
A key point lieutenants are making: when they take time off, rank and file firefighters replace them, “riding up” to the authority of a lieutenant on a fire truck. That’s happening routinely since the city, in an effort to save money, restructured the way it answers emergency calls.
There was just one objection the entire day: when Bolin, the union representative, asked Laughren what number of lieutenants he thought were willing to unionize, Glassman, the city attorney, objected, citing hearsay. The hearing officer agreed, though the proportion is in the record: two thirds.
Glassman, questioning Laughren, went through some of the same procedures, though Glassman looked to underline the fact that lieutenants are the first line of authority at fires and the first line of disciplinary action overall. Glassman went into more details when, after one other lieutenant was called by the union (Mike Shields), he called Chief Beadle to the chair.
Beadle, answering Glassman’s questions, sought to establish that lieutenants’ authority is clear and their judgment is relied on “absolutely,” in personnel disciplining, hiring and training decisions, as well as some administrative decisions. The lieutenants had said they were not involved in budgetary matters. But Beadle said their recommendations are listened to.
“I personally do not recommend that lieutenants be considered part of the bargaining unit,” Beadle said, comparing them to middle management. He stressed, following the attorney’s questioning, that when rookies are hired, “lieutenants are their role model, mentor, teacher, they’re the ones who are going to see if this employee is going to make it or not.” Glassman asked if there’d be conflicts if lieutenants are involved in the bargaining unit. Beadle said that because lieutenants are involved in drafting policies on a policy committee, which was formed at the request of employees, their inclusion in the bargaining unit would create conflicts.
That was an interesting, if incomplete, point: The firefighters say that the policy committee, while active, hasn’t led anywhere—that the city is holding off on implementing policies. The city’s delays, a year and a half after creating the committee, are, in fact, one of the reasons behind the effort to unionize: firefighters think the city created the committee for appearances’ sake, only to sit on recommendations.
The hearing officer asked clarifying questions. “How often do you accept what the lieutenants have evaluated?” she asked. “I never say never,” Beadle said, “but I don’t believe I’ve ever changed anything that a lieutenant recommended.” He does ask for elaborations or further explanations on evaluations, however, and the final number on merit increases “does rest with me.” Currently, there are no such increases, though they’ve ranged from zero percent to 5 percent, with 2.5 percent being the average.
That was it for Beadle and the union’s witnesses, or rebuttals. The proceedings took just over an hour.
Both sides will file written closing arguments.
After the hearing, Landon chatted for a few moments with his entourage then walked out. Beadle walked over to the firefighters’ side and shook hands with Bolin, Laughren and others, patting them on the back. “We’re all good, we’re all doing the job,” he told Bolin.
Bolin said the city was not being wise in attempting to split the firefighters: should the firefighters lose this round, Bolin said he’ll simply re-file to have two bargaining units instead of one. The process would then start over. It’s not merely a procedural matter: The city is paying an attorney for every hour it delays the union’s implementation.