Ind. union takes city to court over month-long bargaining battle
Professional Firefighters of Kokomo Local 396 requested that the existing fire contract not be terminated "until such time that the matter can be arbitrated"
By George Myers
KOKOMO, Ind. — Kokomo's fire union is taking the city to court in the latest development of what's become a months-long battle over the two sides' collective bargaining efforts.
The Professional Firefighters of Kokomo Local 396, in a civil suit filed this week in Howard Superior Court 4, is requesting that Judge George Hopkins prohibit the city from terminating the existing fire contract at the end of this year and "until such time that the matter can be arbitrated."
The step brings to the courts a contentious issue that has festered between city and union officials since negotiations on a new contract began in early June, and represents the most recent chapter in a relationship between City Hall and Local 396 leadership that has on multiple occasions led to public mudslinging.
Specifically, court documents filed by the union state that members "would be irreparably harmed if the terms of the current contract are allowed to lapse by the expiration of the contract on Dec. 31, 2017."
The union also expressed, in court documents, concerns about the possibility of existing health insurance benefits being denied if the existing contract is allowed to expire on its scheduled end date.
A hearing in the case will be held at 2:30 p.m. Monday in Howard Superior Court 4.
"The City has received the union's court filings and is preparing for the hearing on Monday," said Kokomo Corporation Counsel Beth Copeland in a statement to the Tribune Friday.
"Regardless of how these legal proceedings unfold, local residents can be assured they will not see any difference in fire protection in 2018."
Issues between city and union officials first became public on Nov. 1, when the firefighters' union filed a grievance against the city of Kokomo relating specifically to the city's denial of a request for arbitration.
The grievance, first disclosed by Local 396 President Chris Frazier, stated, "the city has failed and refused to engage in collective bargaining in good faith."
Notably, the grievance also claimed the city "has refused the Union's submission to arbitration of items at impasse despite past precedent requiring such submission."
That grievance was denied by the Kokomo Board of Public Works on Nov. 27.
City ordinance lays out a 45-day negotiating window during which arbitration can be requested. The two sides began contract negotiations on June 7, according to Frazier, and the union submitted a written intent to bring the matter to arbitration on Oct. 6.
But Frazier believes a previous ruling, made in 2005 in Howard Superior Court I, set a precedent that if both sides agree to further negotiations, the period to enter into arbitration extends past 45 days.
The union was first informed in an email Oct. 25 by attorney David Swider, serving as outside counsel representing the city, that it would not agree to arbitration.
"We continued negotiating mutually past the 45 days to try to reach an agreement," said Frazier in an email. "We asked for arbitration as soon as we reached an impasse in negotiations."
Now, the union is requesting that the court mandate city officials to comply with what Local 396 members believe is "mandatory binding arbitration."
Citing Indiana code, the union's court filing states that the union "is entitled to an order commanding Respondent (the city of Kokomo) to proceed with arbitration."
"At no point during the negotiations did the City request Local 396 to waive its right to arbitration," adds the suit. "Further, the course and conduct of the parties demonstrated that the City would continue negotiations and participate in arbitration beyond the timeline recommended in" a city ordinance.
The union, again citing health insurance concerns, also maintains that the city has attempted "to pressure Local 296 into signing an agreement that is preferential to the City and not the firefighters."
In conjunction, the suit references a letter written by Copeland and distributed, in late November, to employees of the Kokomo Fire Department. In the suit, the union calls the letter "defamatory."
The letter states that once negotiation began "it became apparent there was no real desire on the union's part to reach an agreement."
"The union's initial proposal to the City contained more than 70 total proposals! (In comparison, the FOP proposed fewer than 10 changes to their entire contract.) Moreover, many of the proposals submitted and vigorously fought for involved changes that only affect the President or the executive board," reads Copeland's letter.
The document, which also lays out the city's "last, best and final offer" made to union leadership, expresses the belief that Frazier did not communicate negotiation details with his membership.
"In a final conversation, the terms of this contract settlement opportunity were outright rejected by Union President Chris Frazier. He said the union would not agree to such terms without a 15% raise (5% in each of the 3 years)," wrote Copeland.
"We do not believe the City's final suggested compromise was ever presented to the members for a vote."
The union's suit alleges that the letter contains "numerous false statements and mischaracterizations regarding the negotiations."
A separate letter, distributed by the fire union, was sent to other local union "brothers and sisters" describing the negotiations and contentious impasse.
The union's letter alleges that the city has declared it will not mutually agree to extend the current contact past Dec. 31, and states that negotiation issues with the administration include the idea of replacing full-time union firefighters with part-time employees.
It also cites issues related to retirement health insurance for firefighters; "reasonable" health insurance premiums for employees who are not Kokomo residents; removal of a no-layoff clause; and more.
"All of these anti-labor actions are openly being committed by the city administration and board of public works whose leaders were once union leaders in this community," states the union's letter.
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