by Shawn Garza, Publisher
(Publisher’s Note: Warning to the Reader: This story is long. It’s not overly exciting, except to those who are interested. It required numerous hours of interviews, sifting through the never-ending stream of data and constantly changing viewpoints, and spending a lot of time weighing data. This story will contain quotes from citizens who have asked not to be identified. Their quotes are opinions only and are not to be considered facts for the reader.)
MIDWEST CITY, OK – Recent months have seen some vitriolic comments and responses on social media such as Facebook regarding the contract between the Midwest City firefighters union and the City.
Firefighters are stating that they need five more firefighters (but will settle for two), and the City is stating that it doesn’t have the money to make those hires due to a revenue shortfall.
On Nov. 24, the Midwest City Council voted to call for a recall election measure after the necessary number of signatures were authenticated on a petition circulated by the local police and fire unions.
That election will take place Feb. 9, 2016.
In the beginning…
Firefighter Major Doug Beabout was elected president of the local firefighters union last December. Beabout said that because he was so new to the job he did not know that he was supposed to be at the City’s budget meetings. As a result, he didn’t attend, and said he was not aware that the City was not going to fill firefighter positions.
“I had learned from reading articles that the current negotiating environment between unions and municipalities had become less adversarial and more ‘working together.’ I visited various city offices and officials to introduce myself and say, ‘Hi,’” said Beabout.
In April, at the first negotiating meeting, Beabout said that he and his negotiating team entered the room to find a professional negotiator named Michael Bates at the table, who had been hired by the City for the contract discussions.
“We didn’t know this guy,” said Beabout, who claims that further research showed Bates to be reportedly “pro-management.”
“I knew then that these negotiations were going to be adversarial,” Beabout said, and as a result made an initial proposal to the City which included a 6.2 percent cost of living adjustment (COLA). “We were haggling, and we knew we were never going to get that,” Beabout said regarding the proposal. “[Bates’s presence at the negotiating table] put us on the defensive, so we shot high.”
That decision would later become a thorn in the union’s side.
Beabout said that after Bates was dismissed by the City, the two parties were quickly able to come to agreement on 14 areas of the contract.
Time progresses, negotiations, not so much…
As time went on, the union pushed for the hiring of two new firefighters to fill positions the union states are necessary for maximum safety efficiency. The City states that in order to do so, adjustments would have to be made in the fire department’s pay structure.
Midwest City’s sales tax revenues have taken a hit recently, largely in part from the building of a new Walmart Super Center in nearby Choctaw which has decreased traffic to Midwest City’s Walmart stores.
The City has also stated a desire not to relinquish their rights to the union on the number of firefighter hires because if the City relented, these “management rights” would then be transferred to the union, and they would be able to dictate personnel levels to the City in the future. Instead, the City prefers to allow the fire chief to make these recommendations.
The union is concerned that the fire chief is an “at-will” employee, meaning he can be fired at any time, and answers to the city manager.
Fire Chief Bert Norton has presented a plan that would reduce the number of firefighting “engines” by one and would replace that engine with a “squad.” A squad is not a firefighting vehicle; it is used for medical emergencies which account for 87 percent of the fire department’s calls.
In addition, the City states that reducing the number of engines would also reduce the number of necessary promotions.
In a public letter answering the union’s positions, the City said, “In summary, the changes represented in the plan will take place over time and will not result in any lay-offs or demotions within the department. One of the goals of the plan, which is to allow the department to hire more firefighters, will be made possible through this reorganization plan.”
Two years ago, Midwest City had 81 firefighters, but currently has 73, with three of that number being new hires. The union has stated that it would like 75 firefighters which would allow the City to put the out-of-service ladder truck back into service thus restoring the level of fire protection for those who live in the area of Station 1.
In mid-summer, the union re-examined the fire department’s budget looking for cuts it could make. The study found that the budget included some retired firefighters’ payroll and for the fire chief’s previous pay.
Overall, the union found $242,000 they believed could be cut from the budget. They then took this information to the City, hoping the City would use the freed up funds to hire new firefighters, Beabout said. The City declined stating that it would proceed with Chief Norton’s plan. The City also pointed out that the freed up money was a one-time savings and, therefore, would not be sustainable enough to maintain the new hires.
Since the initial proposal for a 6.2 percent COLA, the union has declined any of the COLA proposals offered by the City stating that the money should be used to hire new firefighters.
The union later changed its direction.
On Oct. 13, the city’s police and firefighter unions delivered to the council the results of a vote of no confidence in which 98 percent of union members agreed. The letter stated that the voting members hold that Mayor Dee Collins and City Manager Guy Henson are not “fit to hold their respective positions.”
The unions then decided to circulate a petition calling for the recall of Collins and Henson to step down. Billboards appeared in various spots throughout the city stating that the two officials “do not care about public safety.”
“We were in a corner. We just did not feel they were listening to us,” said Beabout.
Social media surrounding the issue lit up, and participants have been passionate, active and, some would say, vitriolic. One Facebook user stated that he has lost good friends over this issue.
Local activist and Rose State economics professor Craig Dawkins founded a Facebook page titled “Midwest City Voters and Issues.” On that page, Prof. Dawkins and others have referred to union tactics as “aggressive” and “bully tactics.”
Union supporters on the union’s Facebook page have claimed that Collins and Henson “do not care about public safety,” and have made a number of unsubstantiated allegations about the city manager and council members.
Others have commented that the language used by individuals on both sides has fostered animosity to a point where the proponents of both sides are no longer truly discussing the issues but are effectively yelling at each other and accomplishing nothing.
Ward 2 City Councilman Rick Rice has commented on these pages answering questions put forth by concerned citizens in an attempt to quell some of the heightened emotions.
Union members on Facebook have maintained that the main point of contention has never been about raises or wages but about safety. Opponents claim that if the issue were not about money, then the union would not have initially proposed a 6.2 percent COLA hike.
One resident opined that implying that the mayor and city manager do not care about public safety when the City has an ISO 1 rating – a rating based on safety and services and very few municipalities in the USA have – is “ludicrous and insulting.”
A commenter on Facebook asserted that the unions are simply wanting to take over city government, which he says, “must never happen.”
Union supporters have been vocal as well. One local teacher stood in support of first responders saying, “The name calling and belittling their integrity is not far removed from behaviors I see at recess when children don’t like what they hear!”
One union supporter in response to a comment alleging that the union only wanted pay raises, stated, “Even with all your nasty comments, any one of us would dive into the depths of hell to pull you to safety without giving it a second thought. There is nothing you can say or do to change the heart of a person who has truly dedicated their life to the service of others. It’s in the fabric of their being whether they like it or not.”
And here we are…
On Nov. 24, the Midwest City Council approved the final contract between the City and the union. Beabout addressed the council saying that he thanked them and hoped that the council would use any saved money to hire additional firefighters.
During that same meeting, the Council accepted the recall petition and set the election date.
In an interview with Mayor Collins, he said, “I believe Midwest City has the best individual police officers and firefighters there are. I also believe that city leadership, the City Manager and department heads are highly competent, educated and have a good grip of reality. As Mayor, I have to look at the big picture. Union leadership has tried to bargain in areas in which they have no authority, such as manning and equipment allocation. They resorted to social media and this recall petition to get what they want. The final thing is they want more money for the department, but as Mayor I have to look at the whole community.”