In a decision that clears the way for formalizing a union at the Palm Coast Fire Department, the Public Employees Relations Commission on Thursday (Dec. 2) ruled against the Palm Coast city administration’s attempt to prevent lieutenants in department from being included in the same collective bargaining units as rank-and-file firefighters and EMTs.
- The Ruling
- Palm Coast Is Fighting Firefighters’ Union on Forming a Single Bargaining Unit
- Palm Coast Firefighters Unionize, Citing Unbalanced Treatment of Employees
- Palm Coast Fire Department Takes Delivery of Versatile $1 Million Ladder Truck
- Palm Coast Replaces Tired Fire Truck With $374,000 Model
Barring an appeal by the city, the 15 lieutenants and the 40 firefighter-EMTs and firefighters-paramedics will cast secret ballots in a single election in late January or early February to create a unified collective bargaining unit. Palm Coast Fire Chief Mi Beadle said Friday evening the city did not intend to appeal the ruling. “We did what we needed to do and we’ll go with their ruling,” Beadle said.
Firefighters say they’re not unionizing to seek raises, but to establish more uniform regulatory procedures–from the number of firefighters required to be on a call to the disciplinary procedures meted out–that they say have been uneven and at times haphazard. Health and retirement benefits have also been an issue, firefighters say, particularly when it comes to firefighters injured on the job and unable to continue.
Jason Laughren, a lieutenant with the department and the president of the firefighters’ union, said he expects the vote to establish collective bargaining to be more successful than the July vote that established the union. That vote drew 70 percent approval. More firefighters have since joined the unionization drive.
“Everyone is real happy with the decision. I think it’s a good thing for us,” Laughren said, citing the cohesiveness of lieutenants and rank-and-file firefighters, who respond to calls and battle fires side by side–a cohesiveness the commission’s decision stressed as the reason to keep the two groups together.
“The commission recognizes that firefighters of all ranks share a community of interest based on their common mission to protect life and property in fire combat and rescue operations,” the state’s decision read, “a mission that exposes them to high risk of personal injury. […] In this case, the community of interest between the fire lieutenants and their subordinates is strengthened by the fact that they share the same quarters and chores and wear virtually identical uniforms. The central issue, then, is whether the fire lieutenants have supervisory duties of such significance as to override this community of interest.”
They do not, the commission concluded.
The firefighters voted to unionize on June 14. That vote established Local 4807 under the International Association of Firefighters. The state recognized the union. The City of Palm Coast, which has opposed the unionization effort, did not. The next step for the firefighters was to create a collective bargaining unit, at which point the city would have to recognize the union and negotiate a new contract with its firefighters. But the two sides had to agree about who would be included in the unit. The firefighters filed their papers with the Public Employees Relations Commission on July 29, seeking certification for their bargaining unit, which would include lieutenants. In an attempt to delay or derail the establishment of the unit–a common tactics by management in union formations–the city objected on Aug. 18, saying lieutenants have a supervisory role that creates a conflict of interest if they were to be in the same bargaining unit.
The two sides held a hearing before Suzanne Choppin, a hearing officer with the state commission, on Oct. 22 at the Palm Coast Community Center on Palm Coast Parkway. Choppin actually heard the case by phone from Tallahassee. The city made several points in favor of keeping lieutenants and rank-and-file personnel separate: lieutenants take part in evaluations, mete out reprimands and sit on hiring committees. But in every case, the Commission found the authority of lieutenants either very limited or dependent on ratification by captains and the fire chief. Lieutenants’ authority is more advisory than binding, and lieutenants “exercise no authority in the areas of firing, promotion, scheduling, and the resolution of grievances,” the resolution read. “Moreover, the fire chief who exercises the ultimate authority to hire new employees has made hiring decisions contrary to a hiring committee’s recommendations.”
Conditions within the department have been tense since the firefighters launched their effort to unionize, with relations between firefighters and management, particularly Chief Mike Beadle, cooling considerably, Laughren said.
Management in unionizing situation is forbidden by law from lobbying employees in attempts to sway them away from unionization. But companies and organizations, public or private, do find ways to do so regardless. Organizers, however, are trained to detect signs of interference. Tension within the department is not likely to abate until the vote in two months, and the contract negotiations soon after that.