Palm Coast’s 60 rank-and-file firefighters held a union vote in July, with 40 to 45 firefighters opting to form a union. The firefighters have their on local under the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF). Curiously, the unionization has not been announced by Palm Coast City Manager Jim Landon to the city council, at least not publicly.
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“The union is in place,” Jason Laughren, a lieutenant with the Palm Coast Fire Department, said on Tuesday. The union doesn’t yet have collective bargaining powers with the city. It’s working through the Public Employees Relations Commission to reach that point, pending a hearing involving the union and city management. It’s not a given that the commission will grant collective bargaining authority to the union, but it usually does.
Increasing pay or benefits is not at issue. The firefighters decided to unionize over two other issues, Laughren said: job security and the inequitable treatment of employees following disciplinary action. Some employees were treated differently than others, depending on their relationship with management, Laughren said. With a union in place, such things as disciplinary rules would be standardized and gray areas enabling favoritism eliminated.
“It doesn’t make any difference to me,” Palm Coast Fire Chief Mike Beadle said. “It is what it is, if this is what the guys want to do.”
Laughren said firefighters have “a very good working relationship with the chief,” who’s maintained an open-door policy throughout his tenure even as the department has grown quickly. The unionization effort stemmed more from issues with city management, and particularly City Manager Jim Landon, who “treated some past employees unfavorably,” Laughren, who’s been with the department just under five years, said. “With his past practices, I wouldn’t put it past him to fire us–two or three of us.” He added: “So far we haven’t had any retaliation. That doesn’t mean there won’t be.” The atmosphere at the department is somewhat tense at the moment.
Landon did not respond to questions about the contention of unfair treatment or the council’s awareness of the unionization effort.
One of the issues in play at the moment is who would be included in the union. The existing union wants the department’s 15 lieutenants to be included. The city wants to exclude them. Managerially, that would create a wedge between the rank-and-file and the lieutenants, who nevertheless work on the line with firefighters and spend all their on-duty time with them in the firehouse. Should the city succeed in keeping lieutenants separate from the rank and file, lieutenants are likely to form their own union, essentially forcing the city to deal with two unions instead of one.
Unions generally have a rough time establishing themselves at first: workers organize secretly, for fear of retribution, despite legal provisions that ostensibly protect unionizing activities. Management in companies or state or local government agencies, who have retaliatory tools at the ready, while pledging compliance with the law, typically pressure or intimidate employees against unionizing. Retaliation is easier before a union — and a collective bargaining agreement — is in place.
“In reality a union isn’t going to affect the department. It’s going to make us better,” Laughren said. “As we grow we can help the chief solve problems.”
Flagler County’s firefighters are also unionized, though Richard Bennett, president of that union, is not involved in Palm Coast firefighters’ efforts. “It’s their deal,” Bennett said, “they’re working on it. I’m simply there as a support group for them.”