Fire-based EMS is returning to University City, Missouri, thanks to a $1.9 million Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant. But the path to victory was not an easy one. The Professional Fire Fighters of Eastern Missouri Local 2665 spent years fighting through political action, litigation and advocacy to get to the finish line.
“Our members have worked hard to overcome a very difficult set of circumstances,” says 2nd District Vice President Mark Woolbright. “But they never backed down, even when it seemed everything was stacked against them. They have persevered. I am very proud of their great work.”
Leading into 2013, Local 2665 members from University City had been subject to pay freezes for five years, contributing to the fire department’s high turnover rate. When the city identified additional revenue, the Local 2665 bargaining unit began to discuss how to allocate some of those funds to improve public safety and employee retention.
But the city manager, mayor, fire chief and five city council members were not interested in bargaining in good faith. Only two city council members, Terry Crow and Paulette Carr, were willing to listen.
“We were in contract negotiations, trying to improve staffing and wages and to bring the city’s wellness program to compliance with national standards, but the administration was not willing to discuss those topics seriously,” says then-Shop Steward Jen Stuhlman.
While the city administration continued to delay negotiations, the Missouri State Council of Fire Fighters (MSCFF) had successfully lobbied to pass a law revising state statute to allow first responders to engage in political activity off duty and not in uniform. The law also prohibited local governments from preventing them from doing so.
Heading into the 2014 election, Local 2665 members endorsed four fire fighter-friendly candidates. As part of the campaign effort, six Local 2665 members — Stuhlman, Assistant Shop Steward Jeffrey Barlage, Shift Representative Nicholas Robben and members Nick Werner, Lucas Andert and Chris Jones — agreed to a photo shoot with the candidates in front of a fire truck and dressed in fire fighter gear, but not in uniform. Nothing in the photo identified them as University City fire fighters. Even the fire apparatus was from a different department.
Each of the four candidates ran very tight races, but none of them won their seats.
A few days later, city officials announced the suspension of the six fire fighters, citing a long-standing policy that stated city employees engaged in political activities related to local elections would face disciplinary action.
The suspensions resulted in near-immediate blowback from the public. At the next city council meeting, more than 100 citizens and area fire fighters held signs reading, “I support our fire fighters.” The six fire fighters also received donations to help with expenses during their suspensions.
“It was important to us to make sure our members could pay their bills and put food on the table throughout this process, so we set up a fund with all of the donations going to them,” says IAFF District Field Service Representative and Local 2665 4th District Vice President Kurt Becker.
The city administration was unmoved.
At the time, Jones was in the process of being hired by Central County Fire and Rescue, also represented by Local 2665. When his suspension was announced, he was given the opportunity to immediately begin work with the new employer.
The remaining five appealed to the city’s Civil Service Board, which recommended that the suspensions be reversed. The city manager refused.
Local 2665 members continued their fight, filing a federal lawsuit against the city accusing the city manager and fire chief of violating their free speech and free association rights protected under the U.S. and Missouri Constitutions. The case was handled under the IAFF Guardian Policy.
A secondary sexual harassment lawsuit was filed on behalf of Jen Stuhlman as city officials had told her they could not deal with her even in her capacity as shop steward because she was a woman.
The court found in favor of Local 2665 in both cases.
The city agreed to pay the five Local 2665 members full backpay for the 90 days of their suspension and expunged the suspensions from their personnel files. Additionally, the court ruled that the city administration could no longer restrict Local 2665 members from political action.
“We were very pleased with the ruling in this case,” says Stuhlman. “We are very thankful for all that the IAFF’s legal team did for us.”
As this litigation was ongoing, the city administration unilaterally gave raises to all city employees except the members of Local 2665. Additionally, only the Local 2665 members were required to pay more for health insurance.
In 2015, with no prior input from University City citizens, the council voted 5-2 to privatize emergency medical services to Gateway Ambulance. The five in favor of privatization believed the move was a good cost-saving measure.
“Not only was this contract with Gateway bad for public safety, but it was also a breach of the contract between our members and the administration,” says Becker.
Local 2665 challenged the contract violations in court but were unsuccessful.
During the 2016 and 2017 campaign cycles, the tides finally began to turn in favor of University City fire fighters with the help of Local 2665 members and the IAFF as several labor-friendly candidates won seats on the city council.
Meanwhile, two other anti-labor city officials were forced to resign; another left voluntarily. City Manager Lehman Walker was ousted amid a series of wrongful termination and racial and sexual harassment lawsuits, as well as the suspensions of the University City fire fighters. Additionally, Fire Chief Adam Long resigned amid accusations he had an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate.
When Mayor Shelley Welsch, decided not to run for re-election, labor-friendly council member Crow was elected in April 2018. And longtime University City fire fighter William Hinson officially became the city’s new fire chief.
As of 2018, all six of the suspended Local 2665 members have since been hired away from University City by other fire departments. But their influence and willingness to fight for fair treatment has created a more labor-friendly environment for the Local 2665 members who continue to work in University City.
Local 2665 Executive Vice President Cory Hogan has been a part of the team providing advice and assistance throughout this ordeal. “Jen Stuhlman has been a warrior, never backing down from the fight. Even with a favorable administration, we need strong leaders like her to continue advocating on behalf of our members there. I am hopeful that we will have leaders there willing to step up when we need them.”
In other good news, the University City Fire Department was awarded a SAFER grant to bring back fire-based EMS personnel. The three-year grant makes it possible for the city to purchase new medical units and to hire and train 12 new fire fighter/paramedics.