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Battle in Monarch Fire District centers on efforts to curb union's influence

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 8, 2013: The battle underway in the Monarch Fire Protection District in west St. Louis County involves far more than pink T-shirts and whether the district’s firefighters can sport and sell such shirts to promote efforts to fight breast cancer.

As district board member Jane Cunningham and her firefighter critics see it, the fight is actually over the clout of the district’s collective-bargaining organization, Local 2665 of the International Association of Firefighters/Professional Firefighters of Eastern Missouri.

At its most recent board meeting, the district’s three-person board – controlled by conservatives Robin Harris, the president, and Cunningham– presented a contract that does away with several union provisions.

Among other things, the district’s contract proposes to:

  • End payroll deduction of union dues and service fees, which would require union officials to collect payments from each member or non-member (who still pay representation fees).
  • Eliminate the union’s office on the district’s premises and end the current contract-stipulated practice of allowing union meetings to be held on district property.
  • End the union’s role in appointing representatives to various fire district committees that work with the board and administration on such matters as budgets and long-range planning.
  • End seniority protection in the case of layoffs.
  • End non-binding arbitration in disputes between the board and the union.
  • Reduce the number of paid holidays by one-fourth, from 12 to nine.
  • Awarding longevity pay to firefighters only until after they’re with the district 19 years. Currently, such extra pay is given after four years.

The Monarch board also has ordered the firefighters to remove Local 2660 logos from the fire trucks and other district equipment. Union representatives say the logos have been on the vehicles for decades.
Cunningham, a former state senator from Chesterfield, said the board’s three-year contract proposal – which would take effect Jan. 1 – is intended in part to reassert control by the three-person board and reduce what she sees as excessive power by Local 2665, which represents firefighters and paramedics in Monarch and many of the county’s fire districts.

“Definitely, the union has controlled everything,’’ she said. “They had the fox watching the hen house. Well, the fox isn’t there anymore.”

Cunningham maintains that the tide has been turning since her election last spring, when she joined Harris. The two wield majority control on the three-person board.

Union decries Cunningham's criticisms

Cunningham’s election undeniably changed the board's dynamic. Previously it had been seen as having an amiable relationship with Local 2665. But no more.

“Ever since I’ve been elected, we’ve been cleaning house,’’ Cunningham said. “We’ve been going through and cleaning up the fiscal house.”

Fire Capt. Chris Gelven, one of the district’s two shop stewards, said that such talk is divisive.

“At a recent meeting in St. Louis County, Ms. Cunningham compared Monarch firefighters and paramedics to the ‘mafia’ and to a corrupt ‘cartel’ that is abusing the Monarch Fire Protection District, “ he said.

“She made deceptive accusations and incorrect statements about the Monarch firefighters, worker’s compensation costs and other matters, and she ended her appearance at that meeting by saying, ‘We must kill this beast.’ ”

Fire Capt. Andrew Stecko, the other shop steward, said, “She’s basically villainizing us.”

Cunningham said she is telling the truth and merely representing Monarch taxpayers, who she says have long been taken advantage of.

In fact, that’s among the reasons Cunningham supported the board’s decision to hold the collective-bargaining sessions over a new contract in public instead of in the usual closed session.

“Collective bargaining in front of the public and the press is kind of unheard of,’’ she said. “It kind of follows the campaign theme, if you will. ... This is a public board, and the taxpayers should be in charge of their public board. It needs to be transparent, they need to know what we’re doing.”

Emulating Mehlville board

Cunningham is in the first year of a six-year term, after defeating fellow Republican Cole McNary last spring. Many union members had backed McNary, who accused Cunningham of politicizing the fire board.

During last spring’s campaign, Cunningham made clear that she believed the pay, benefits and pension costs for Monarch firefighters and paramedics were too generous and unsustainable.

“Had I not won, the taxes would have gone up,’’ she said.

Cunningham said that firefighters work two 24-hour shifts a week, which she said allows many of them to hold other full-time or part-time jobs during the five days a week that they are off.  She said some residents advocate moving to 12-hour shifts, so that the firefighters “are not paid to sleep.”

Even so, Cunningham emphasized in a recent interview that the proposed contract keeps the beginning pay as it is now, $81,241 for a firefighter with the rank of private, and $88,656 for a captain as a firefighter or paramedic.

Union spokesmen said that their contract proposal also calls for no salary increases.

One of Cunningham’s key targets is the district’s workers compensation costs, which she said now total $1.2 million a year. She is seeking to slash the program’s premiums, saying it's three times what the district should be paying.

She cited the Mehlville Fire District’s success in cutting its workers compensation costs to $400,000 a year. “In Mehlville, the public there has got it,’’ said Cunningham. “They understand the difference between a union-controlled board and a taxpayer-controlled board, and it’s mainly financial.”

To achieve such savings in Monarch, she said, the district’s workers compensation rules need to be changed so that employee practices are safer and it is not so financially lucrative for injured firefighters.

“Most of our injuries have nothing to do with fighting fires. Many of them are slips and falls. A lot of it is just horsing around,’’ she said.

In addition, she said, experts told the board that it was “actually paying them more to be off work with a workers comp injury than you are paying them to be on duty.”

The proposed contract would trim back the workers compensation payments. Cunningham also wants every injured employee to be subject to drug and alcohol tests

Union calls her effort 'a huge threat'

Monarch’s union representatives dispute her characterization of injured firefighters and her comparison to Mehlville, which she calls “a shining star.”

“We perceive Ms. Cunningham’s proposed plan as a huge threat to the communities we serve and to our organization,” Gelven said.

The union said that the Mehlville Fire Protection District has seen a turnover of almost 50 percent in its workforce because cuts in pensions and other benefits have prompted firefighters to move to other districts.

"Monarch Fire Protection District services rendered by our firefighters and paramedics are the most affordable insurance policy going for our community, whose tax rate is among one of the lowest in St Louis County," Gelven said.

"Many of our local residents pay more money for cable TV or lawn care service than for the premier EMS/fire/rescue services that we provide. We are a full-service organization built on top quality employees utilizing essential tools and equipment, and our team members are highly trained and skilled at what we do as first responders."

Meanwhile, Cunningham hopes that the Monarch board’s actions will encourage other districts to stand up to Local 2665. “People are calling me from other districts,’’ she said, including some fire chiefs. “They are grateful.”

She is sharply opposed to a bill that passed the General Assembly with GOP support, and was signed by Gov. Jay Nixon, that allows firefighters to be politically active while off duty and to post political signs in their yards.  Cunningham predicts the law will allow firefighters to run as candidates for fire district boards.

She has been publicly critical of state Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale, who helped get the bill passed. Schmitt said that the measure attracted little opposition and a majority of Republican legislators backed it.

Plans to stay in post, even if she seeks another

Cunningham was, in effect, forced out of the state Senate when her 7th District seat was moved across the state during redistricting. Otherwise, she would have run for re-election in 2012.

She could still serve another four-year term in the state Senate, without running afoul of term limits. Cunningham now resides in the 26th District, currently represented by state Sen. Brian Nieves, R-Washington.  She said she might consider running for the Senate from that district, should Nieves opt against running for re-election or seek another office.

But even if she seeks another office, Cunningham plans to keep her fire district post – even though she earns only $200 a meeting and she acknowledges that it has been time consuming.

She points to state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, who also serves on the University City School Board.

“I would never give up this job,” Cunningham said, “even to go back to the state Senate.”

However, legislative experts point to Article III, Section 12 of the state constitution, that bars legislators from hoping any other government post or job, with the exception of school boards, where the members are unpaid, and the National Guard.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.