Battle in Monarch Fire District

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Board boiling over with anti-worker, anti-union actions

T-SHIRT BROUHAHA: Chris Gelven of the Monarch Fire Protection District, poses near Engine House 3 wearing a pink breast cancer awareness T-shirt with a union logo on the sleeve. – St. Louis Post-Dispatch photo
T-SHIRT BROUHAHA: Chris Gelven of the Monarch Fire Protection District, poses near Engine House 3 wearing a pink breast cancer awareness T-shirt with a union logo on the sleeve.
– St. Louis Post-Dispatch photo

By MARY ANN HOLLEY

Staff Writer

Monarch Fire Protection District firefighters say the recent brouhaha over their “Pink Heals” Breast Cancer Awareness T-shirts – temporarily banned because they sported their International Union of Firefighters Local 2665 union logo on the sleeve, was a ploy to turn the public against the union as they begin negotiations for their contract, which expires in January. Firefighters haven’t had a raise in six years.

The T-shirt issue was resolved, and the firefighters are wearing the shirts.

But they say it’s odd the Fire Board wanted to change its policy on the T-shirts now. They’ve worn those shirts each October for the past four years and raised more than $6,000 to fight breast cancer – and all that time, their union logo was there.

This year, however, comes Monarch Fire Board newcomer Jane Cunningham, a picture perfect Tea Party Republican, with a proven political record of pushing working men and women of our state toward lower wages and benefits.

Her election to the Monarch Fire Protection District Board in April created a conservative majority on the three-member board, the members of which have made no bones about their disdain for unions, fair wages, fair work rules and fair benefits. Now they’re directing their destruction toward the Monarch Firefighters and their union.

At present, Robin Harris is president; Cunningham is secretary and Steve Swyers is treasurer.

AGAINST WORKING PEOPLE

In her years as a state representative (2000-2008) and state senator (2008- early 2013), Cunningham voted against any bill that had an inkling of helping working men and women.

Due to Senate redistricting following the 2010 U.S. Census, Cunningham chose not to run for re-election in 2012.

As a legislator, Cunningham said the state’s welfare and poverty programs should “Maintain the requirement that able-bodied recipients work in order to receive benefits.” She voted in favor of overriding Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of a bill that would have stifled workers' compensation laws. She voted to kill President Obama’s Affordable Care Act in Missouri, voted to authorize employers to exempt birth control pills and other forms of contraception from healthcare coverage, and proposed a bill that would dramatically weaken child labor laws. She also voted in favor of limiting the amount a workplace discrimination lawsuit would pay.

OUT TO DESTROY THE UNION

Now Cunningham has set her sights on the members of Local 2665, forcing firefighters to remove union logos from their fire trucks – ending a 30-year practice – and proposed spending $6,000 to get new pink T-shirts printed rather than allowing firefighters to wear the shirts with the union logo.

“Any verbiage mentioning ‘union’ in the contract has been removed,” Fire Captain/Paramedic Chris Gelven, one of the district’s two shop stewards said. “If anyone has any doubts that she is trying to destroy the union and is anti-firefighter, they’re crazy.”

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

Firefighter John Schoop, committee chair of the Local 2665’s Pension, Health and Welfare Board, did a survey during Cunningham’s election campaign – which was rife with anti-firefighter rhetoric – asking voters at the polls to give him one example of something firefighters had done that was detrimental to taxpayers of the district.

“No one could tell me anything,” Schoop said. “But all they hear is the evil fire district.”

FREEZING WAGES

The Board’s recent contract proposal freezes wages in place. Cunningham says she would increase wages by $1,000 per year only if firefighters can get workers compensation insurance costs down to $400,000. She wants to double pay steps and bring in part-time employees to fill overtime shifts.

Cunningham says she “doesn’t want to pay firefighters to sleep.”

“I work a 24 hour shift. I don’t sleep in my own bed, I don’t get to go home and see my kids,” Schoop said. “We work the most economical way we can, and Cunningham wants to hire part-timers to fill the overtime shifts.”

OTHERS MAKE MORE

“Every fire department that borders our fire district makes more, and our tax rate is less than any of them,” Gelven said. “Why are we a target?”

The current pay scale for Monarch firefighter/paramedics is $48,744 for a first-year private, $48,744 for a first-year inspector and $88,656 for a captain. Firefighters are not eligible to sit for the captain’s exam until they have five years of service with the district. Shift personnel work an average of 56 hours weekly or 2,912 hours annually.

Cunningham has complained that firefighters get 12 paid holidays per year, but Gelven says that is a half-truth.

Holiday pay is not double-time or time and one-half as some tradesmen and women receive. For the firefighters, if an employee is scheduled to work on a holiday, they receive an additional $100 holiday pay. If they are not scheduled to work the holiday, they receive nothing, Gelven said.

BOGUS BUDGET BANTER

Schoop and Gelven say the budget has been reworked by the Chief several times to meet the board’s demands, but the board keeps finding new problems.

“They talk about how the poor residents of Chesterfield and Town and Country are hurting, and we don’t want to charge them any more tax money,” Schoop said, adding that the fire district’s officers have made cuts to the budget and are working on getting workers’ compensation down.

“We agreed to no raise, and lost benefits (in the last contract),” Gelven said. “This hostility from the board is not about the money. They’re there for control. Cunningham is trying to make a name for herself.”

BATTLE FOR CONTROL

Anything done prior to Cunningham getting on the board is being changed, Gelven said.

“They shut down our hiring process and they want to control the process,” Gelven said. “We had a captain’s promotion test two years ago, and we need a captain now, but they want to pick who they want to be captain. There is a guy in line to be promoted, and they’re passing him up. They want control of all day-to-day operations.”

Prior to Cunningham’s election, when there were two pro-union members on the board, Gelven said

Monarch firefighters increased public service on and off duty; hired a public education officer, started eight different programs on car seat safety, had smoke detector drives, offered free CPR lessons and provided safety training for babysitters.

“We started all those programs in two years, and we balanced the budget,” Gelven said. “The firefighters signed a contract for no wage increase and lost benefits. We were involved in every decision. If the public knew everything, it would blow them away.”

The Monarch Fire Protection District covers all of Chesterfield, the Clarkson Valley, unincorporated St. Louis County and parts of Creve Coeur and Wildwood.

Most people in Chesterfield pay more for their lawn service than for the premier EMS/fire/rescue services provided by Monarch firefighters, Gelven said.

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