By Kelsey Ryan
Wichita Eagle – October 21, 2014
The Wichita Fire Fighters Local 135 says the city has engaged in anti-union practices, including denying or significantly delaying the union’s grievances, harassing or trying to dissuade members from using union representation and discouraging the enrollment of new members.
The issue was brought before the City Council on Tuesday when Mark Woolbright, vice president of the International Association of Fire Fighters in Washington, D.C., spoke about the working relationship between the fire fighters and city administration.
“We strongly believe from a legal standpoint that your fire fighters’ contractual, statutorily protected rights as a bargaining unit are being violated,” said Woolbright, who called some of the incidents “blatant acts of intimidation.”
In response, City Manager Robert Layton said the city did not engage in anti-union conduct and that it “believes that it did not violate the labor agreement.” Layton said the allegations should be taken to the Kansas Public Employee Relations Board, but that Local 135 has failed to do that.
Layton also laid out a series of actions that have been taken by the city to develop strong working relationships with fire fighters, including monthly fire department labor and management meetings, monthly health and safety committee meetings, work with Wichita State to create a new promotion process that included fire fighter recommendations, and using tools and training from the Kansas Leadership Center for teams to address safety and training.
However, Matt Schulte, president of Local 135, says those actions have not helped break the cycle of issues between the groups. The actions laid out by Layton are true, he said.
“But the other side of that is the grievances continue and the acts of violations of contracts continue. That’s the problem,” Schulte said.
Of the roughly 430 Wichita firefighters, about 375 of them are Local 135 members, Schulte said. More than 30 fire fighters and their families attended the council meeting.
“The most disappointing thing is the continued violations of the contract. Not paying employees properly and not allowing people to join – which they have a God-given right to by the state – that’s just intolerable. That’s what the union is there for, to protect members’ rights and that’s what we’re doing today,” Schulte said.
Woolbright, who represents more than 200 departments in four states, said the grievances in Wichita outnumber those of any other department he represents.
Mayor Carl Brewer said that issues with the union have been ongoing since he started on the council 13 years ago.
Local 135 had negotiations in 2013 for a contract that goes through 2016. It will not start its next round of contract negotiations until 2016, Schulte said. He hopes that negotiations for the grievances they brought to city council will begin soon.
Gwen Romine, KSFFA Webmaster