MFPD union employee morale ‘horrible,’ Local 1889 president says

Last of two parts

By MIKE ANTHONY

Morale among Mehlville Fire Protection District employees is “horrible,” according to Bob Strinni, president of Local 1889 of the International Association of Fire Fighters.

During a recent interview with the Call, Strinni and Doug Weck, a member of Local 1889’s Executive Board, discussed at length the union’s relationship with the Board of Directors, which changed dramatically in April 2005 when reform candidates Aaron Hilmer and Bonnie Stegman defeated two union-endorsed incumbents to gain election to the board.

During their campaign, Hilmer and Stegman ran as a team, vowing to roll back a 33-cent tax-rate hike approved in November 2004 and cut what they termed fiscal waste.

As Hilmer and Stegman began making good on their campaign promises to trim costs, including employee-benefit packages that previously included 100-percent dependent coverage for medical, dental and vision insurance and numerous vacation and sick-leave days with full pay, the relationship with Local 1889 quickly began to sour.

Local 1889 has challenged in court the board’s efforts to change the district’s pension plan to a defined-contribution plan from a defined-benefit plan. While the board’s authority to change the pension plan has been upheld in St. Louis County Circuit Court, the union has rejected a settlement offer proposed by the board and is appealing that ruling.

A St. Louis County Circuit Court judge also ruled against the union in an earlier lawsuit that sought to prohibit the board from implementing a disability-benefit contract with Standard Insurance and eliminating disability benefits from the district’s pension plan. In January 2007, the Eastern District of the Missouri Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of Local 1889’s lawsuit. In May, the Missouri Supreme Court declined to hear the lawsuit.

Strinni and Weck attribute what they say is “horrible” morale among union employees to the board’s efforts to change the pension plan and the slashing of benefits. As a result, they contend Mehlville is losing good employees, including some recent hires, to other fire protection districts that offer better pay and benefits. In addition, they say the number of candidates applying to the district has diminished along with the quality of those candidates.

“… How do you think we feel when we sit and we look at our boss or bosses in the paper, just saying anything and everything they want about us? And some of it may be true and some of it’s not true,” Strinni said. “And they’re saying it. I mean, most employers don’t ridicule and say anything they want about their employees and expect — I mean this morale at this department is horrible. I mean it is the worst probably in the St. Louis metropolitan area.

“And there’s no reason for it. I mean I’ve extended the olive branch numerous times …”

But those efforts have been rebuffed or gone unanswered, the two said, contending the board’s actions are a retaliatory response to the lawsuits the union has filed.

“We haven’t had a raise in six years,” Strinni said. “How are we going to continue to retain the people that we have and attract new employees? … Like I said earlier, if you look at our benefits — the worst sick leave, the worst vacation. I mean two vacation days for some of these new people and they can go somewhere else and get all of that stuff better, why would they come here? So then you’re going to get the lower-entry people … I had one new guy look at me and tell me it’s the first (time) I’ve ever been on a fire truck … We’ve got guys that are scared — guys that thought they would be able to retire and spend some time with their families when they’re 58 now realize that with this pension plan, I can’t retire when I’m 58 …”

Weck said, “… We have a set schedule because you need down time from here because the stress and the things you see. We need time away, and now on those days away we’re coming back in for 12 hours to work the overtime because now we have to pay the big chunk on health insurance. So I’ve got to work the overtime so I can make up where I’m losing there because I haven’t had a raise. I mean when you’re set six years ago, five years ago, here’s how much you’re making. If you bought a house then, you said: OK, can I afford this house? … Everything’s OK — put money down. And now gas is twice as much, insurance, everything — the cost of living’s gone up 18-20 percent in the last six years and my hourly rate is the same. And now I take $150 or 200 bucks or whatever it is for what kind of health-insurance plan you have, that much less home …

“Guys struggle to get by. Then you get that stress at home, then you’ve got to come in here and work an extra day or two a month to try to make ends meet and then you’re even more tired. You don’t have that down time away from here, so you come in, you’re on edge …”

Strinni contended that the savings to taxpayers as a result of the board’s reforms is minimal.

“What kind of money are we talking about saving? This whole entire business costs money. Saving people’s lives costs money. If they change our pension plan and only give us half of it, I mean the taxpayer is going to save $10 or $20 a year. I mean do you think the taxpayers would want our disability and our pension plan? For all these years, nobody said a word and now to save $20 a year.

“That disability plan they got is still — I mean that is crap. We have a guy that fell and broke his leg, he’s going out on disability. He’s not even going to apply for it because there’s so many offsets in the thing, it’s not worth him applying. His attorney told him not to apply for it …

“Why wouldn’t your employer want to seek the best disability plan for you, especially when you have a dangerous, hazardous job? I mean I have six kids and a grandson … I’m going to be on the cheese line if I go out on disability here,” he said.

Asked how they believe they are perceived by the community, Strinni said, “Well, I think the people that read the Oakville Call and I don’t know what percentage of them, they hear Hilmer’s side all the time. But I mean as far as on calls and stuff … I think they like us. I think they respect what we do and I think we provide a good service …

“We run a lot of calls. I don’t ever hear anything negative or when we get out of the truck, they don’t say: We don’t want you there or anything. I’m sure the people that read your paper with Mr. Hilmer’s comments about everything that is going on and stuff … If they read it and they believe him, I’m sure they probably don’t like us.”

Weck said, “Or they look at us in a negative light … Some people probably think that we’re — may perceive us as being greedy or something, but I think that from our standpoint, we’re just trying to protect the benefits that we have. I don’t think our compensation is out of line or overboard. And I think if people realize the amount of hours that we work per what we get paid … If you’re making $75,000 a year, but you have to work 3,500 hours, that’s a lot of hours. Most people work a couple-thousand hours.

“We’re scheduled for almost 3,000 and then the people who are making a lot of money — our guys are working a lot of overtime. So they’re working 3,500, 3,700 hours a year to make the money that they are. They’re long days. They’re 24-hour shifts … We miss our kids’ birthdays and those kinds of things … It’s tough. You’re away from home.

“In this kind of weather, you’re inside where it’s 70 (degrees). You’re out where it’s zero. You’re back in. In and out. It’s tough on your body,” he continued. “It’s hard. It’s a dangerous job. Not just with the fires, but everything else. We’re exposed to the traffic … communicable diseases, stuff like that … If people feel that we’re overcompensated, I think if they knew what all goes into it and everything we do and the dangers that are there …”

Strinni interjected, “I think if they saw some of the stress and some of the things that we have to see, you know, when you have kids that age and when you go into people’s houses — most of the time when people call us, it’s not the best — it’s not like we’re sitting here talking or you walk in and shake their hands. Something’s wrong …”

Weck interjected, “Sometimes it takes a long time to get back to sleep at night …”