Cumberland Times-News

Local News

October 4, 2013

Firefighters want city to take on contract issues

Union members seeking sit-down negotiations with city

CUMBERLAND — City firefighters want sit-down negotiations to resume between the city and their union, saying the $25,000 they’re asking to keep staffing at safe levels is only a small fraction of hundreds of thousands of dollars the city will save by switching health insurance carriers. Firefighters also released a letter from City Administrator Jeff Rhodes that firefighters claimed as proof the city wants to take their union out of the bargaining process.

“It’s just a game,” said Ken McKenzie, president of the International Association of Firefighters, Local 1715.

McKenzie emphasized the suit for an injunction is not seeking monetary damages, but only to require the city to enter negotiations over the use of funds the city would save by switching the insurance. The injunction case was filed in Allegany County Circuit Court. McKenzie said the firefighters aren’t thinking about a strike at present. The last walkout by firefighters was in 1981, McKenzie said.

“We don’t want to strike, we just want them to sit down,’ said McKenzie.

The city is willing to negotiate, Rhodes said, but there’s a catch.

“If, however, the city has not concluded a new CBA (collective bargaining agreement) ... by July 1, 2014 ... the city would in all respects consider and treat the firefighters as nonunion city employees,” Rhodes said in the Sept. 30 letter.

Several members of the IAFF, which represents 61 members of the city department, held a press conference and rally Friday morning across the street from the central fire department. Several of the union members said they live in the city and have no issue with the city wanting to save money, but only with the way the city is going about it. The injunction could force the city to enter mediation with the union over contractual changes. The city questions if there is a contract in existence — it will be up to a court to decide.

Union members gathered with leader Ken McKenzie, president of the local association, all clad in pink T-shirts containing the union logo and the statement “Fighting for a cure” in recognition of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

The city withdrew from negotiation over the health insurance issue in August, said McKenzie. “We want to work with the city ... to maintain, at a minimal cost, to provide a safe level of staffing,” McKenzie said. “I’m hoping that either the injunction or public pressure will get them to call and say ‘Let’s sit down,’” McKenzie said.  “We’d like to get this behind us.”

There are too many more important things happening in the city for a lot of time, effort and money to be spent on this conflict, McKenzie said, adding that he wonders why the city, if concerned with expenses, had hired an outside attorney to help with the court action. In addition to City Solicitor Michael Cohen, the city has Jeff Blomquist of Funk & Bolton of Baltimore helping with the suit. Firefighters have an attorney on the case as well.

 Rhodes’ letter includes discussion of the city’s position on the contract issue.

“As your legal counsel may have informed you ... the city takes the position that it is not a party to a currently enforceable collective bargaining agreement with the IAFF,” Rhodes said in the letter. Rhodes did say that if a contract is determined to exist, the city wants to terminate it June 30, 2014, or at the earliest possible time.

The city also has withdrawn an earlier demand for mediation, Rhodes said.

The city and firefighters have been unable to reach an agreement on several issues, with the most serious point of disagreement being the city’s desire to make a change in health care coverage for employees.

The last contract expired in 2011, but includes a renewal clause. If a current contract does not exist, the requirement for mediation doesn’t exist, said Blomquist. The city also takes the position that an impasse has not been reached, since core issues, not only the health insurance issues, have yet to be negotiated. Because the language of the previous contract was ambiguous, it’s unclear if the contract is in force, said Blomquist. The city is willing to engage in negotiations, Blomquist said Thursday.

The primary issue on the table is the desire of the city to switch health care packages from Blue Cross Blue Shield to CIGNA. According to city officials, the change will allow employees a broader choice of doctors at a lower premium. The change would save the city “several hundred thousands of dollars” if made for all city employees, Rhodes said, and that would mean lower premiums for employees.

That health care change has already been accepted by the United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents city police officers, and the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, which represents city public works and clerical employees.

The city’s financial position and the future of contracts with firefighters are at issue, Rhodes said.

“Given the fiscal realities facing the city, the city cannot make further concessions in exchange for the health care coverage. ... The ... health care plan would save the city, the employees and ultimately our taxpayers a considerable amount of money,” Rhodes said. In addition, the city says the language of past contracts has led to problems.

Matthew Bieniek can be contacted at mbieniek@times-news.com

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