ST. GEORGE – A majority of firefighters employed by the city of St. George want the Teamsters to represent them due to an allegedly hostile work environment within the city, the union claimed in a press release Friday.
“Firefighters employed by the City of St. George approached the Teamsters late last year seeking representation in the work place and a voice on the job,” wrote Spencer Hogue, a representative of the Teamsters Local 222 out of Salt Lake City.
According to the release, complaints firefighters have against the city include “environment of retaliation, favoritism, substandard pay, inequality, discrimination and a blatant lack of respect.”
St. George News contacted Fire Chief Robert Stoker who said late Friday that he was unable to speak to the situation and recommended further inquiries go to the city attorney.
The Teamsters contacted the city in December 2016 and informed officials that a majority of the firefighters wanted the union to represent them and requested a time to engage in collective bargaining. However, the city did not recognize the Teamsters in that capacity.
The Teamsters also suggested the city use an independent third party to confirm that a majority of employed firefighters are interested in joining the union, but that was also declined by the city, Hogue wrote.
“It is disappointing that the city believes its employees should be denied access to the bargaining representative of their choice,” Hogue wrote in the release. “They also fail to see the that the reason their employees are seeking representation is because of their own poor management.”
St. George City Attorney Shawn Guzman confirmed Friday that the city had been contacted by the Teamsters and that it had declined to recognize them.
“Their attorney called me and asked if we were going to recognize the Teamsters for the purpose of collective bargaining for the employees and I informed him we would not,” Guzman said.
In Hogue’s original communications with the city, Guzman said, he presented the city with state code related to firefighters and collective bargaining.
“We believe those statutes didn’t apply to the city,” Guzman said, adding the state code had been shot down as unconstitutional in the 1970s by the Utah Supreme Court.
The court ruled that a legislative body, like a city council that is elected and accountable to the the electorate, cannot surrender its authority to an arbitrary body that represents the interests of a particular group and may not necessarily be accountable to the public or reflect the public interest.
Hogue spoke with St. George News Friday and said he understands the statute had been ruled unconstitutional and was unenforceable. However, he also said the code provides fair and realistic guidelines for how the union and city could begin the bargaining process.
“I think we could use it as a way to structure the bargaining process,” Hogue said, “Or if they want to start from scratch, we can do that too.”
Public employees do not fall under the National Labor Relations Act, he said, and therefore fall under state law.
“Unfortunately the state statutes aren’t strong enough to give us the tools and (the city employees) the tools to organize like they would under the private sector,” Hogue said.
The St. George firefighters originally were not on the Teamsters’ radar, Hogue said. They approached the union after seeing the role they played in representing Gold Cross Ambulance employees in 2015.
The firefighters wanted representation that would result in something that was “in writing” and “guaranteed,” Hogue said, saying the firefighters claimed the city has a history of failing to follow through when it comes to employee-related matters.
The firefighters also want the Teamsters to have their backs due to fears of retaliation, he said. Some firefighters who voiced their concerns were, in their their opinion, blacklisted and passed over for promotion, he said.
The list of allegations is news to the city, Guzman said, as Hogue had initially only shared a general description of employees being unhappy with how they were being treated.
Hogue said that he did not go in-depth with the firefighters’ concerns at the time.
“The Fire Department in St. George has a long and proud history with the city,” Guzman said, “and the employees are valued just as much as all of our employees are.”
While Hogue said the firefighters felt they had no reliable avenues within the city to air their grievances, Guzman said that is not the case.
“They are free to talk to the fire chief, to the human resources director, the city manager or the elected officials,” he said.
Prior to Friday’s press release, Hogue emailed Guzman Wednesday evening asking for him to state the city’s reasoning as to why city officials may believe “employees of St. George City Fire are somehow excluded from organizing a union in their work place and therefore not able to enjoy the benefits of a collective bargaining agreement.”
Guzman, who is currently out of town, said he received the email Thursday and there hadn’t been a chance to respond to it.
“It’s disappointing that we haven’t had an opportunity to respond to them since we received the letter,” Guzman said.
Overall, city employees are free to join unions if they like, Guzman added.
If that is the case, Hogue said, then all the better. However, for the firefighters to join the Teamsters, they first need to be able to organize as a group that is recognized as being represented by the union, he said.
“The union will use all the options at its disposal in an effort to deliver the dignity and respect that these hardworking public servants deserve,” Hogue wrote in Friday’s press release.
As of mid-2016, the St. George Fire Department consisted of 32 full-time employees, nine part-time employees, and 70 reservists. They respond to over 6,000 emergency calls annually.
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