April 9, 2002 – A Senate Labor and Veterans Affairs Committee meeting Monday night was frequently interrupted by bouts of anger as Fire Service officials, union leaders and Office of Collective Bargaining representatives debated the government's handling of firefighters' complaints.
The committee chair, Sen. Norma Pickard-Samuel, said she called the hearing because she feared "violence" could erupt at fire stations. "I don't want the situation to end up in bloodshed," she said. "Firefighters have said that if bread was taken from their mouths, they would resort to violence."
Daryl George, president of the local chapter of the International Association of Firefighters, had a litany of complaints. "The V.I. Fire Service has continuously violated our contract without fear of repercussion," George said. He said Fire Services management sends all grievances to the Public Employees Relations Board because they know "PERB is backlogged with cases and a lack of funding" and they know it could take "months, or even years, for settlements."
Grievances go unanswered, George said, "overtime and fringe benefits go unpaid, and I could go on and on for hours and hours." His union is "overdue," George said, to sit down with the government to work out a new collective bargaining agreement.
Karen Andrews, the government's chief negotiation, took issue with George's remarks. "The government owes no money at this point," she said. Andrews also said she is not refusing to meet with the firefighters unions to negotiate new agreements. She said the government will negotiate, but no date has been set.
Jeffrey A. DeLisle, field service specialist for the IAFF in Washington, D.C., said he was disappointed at what he has found as far as conditions in the Virgin Islands since his visit a year ago.
"Religious discrimination has raised its ugly head again," DeLisle said. And, he said, "In a job that is nationally recognized as one of the most dangerous, your fire service management has failed to provide firefighters with the respect, appropriate tools, training and safe working conditions they deserve."
DeLisle said the repeated claims by the St. Thomas-St. John and St. Croix district union locals of religious discrimination are being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division. "They are confident," DeLisle said, "that the locals' charges will be vindicated."
At issue is a policy of Fire Service Director Ian Williams of not allowing employees to have dreadlocks, braids or beards. The union leaders said this is in violation of the Rastafarian religion and constitutes prejudice. Williams has a full beard and moustache.
Pickard-Samuel said, "This policy of no braiding hair is very silly. These are our people, and this is our culture."
The PERB chair, Aubrey Lee, and Andrews both said they couldn't discuss current grievances because they are under consideration.
"We are spending too much time tonight discussing a hair policy," Sen. Lorraine Berry said at one point, adding, "A month's suspension without pay is a little too drastic for people that wear braids." She said that, having been told the panel couldn't discuss current grievance cases, she would proceed with something else. She asked Williams "What is the status of the Dorothea Fire Station?"
The station was closed in November 1998 for lack of funding and personnel. The North Side St. Thomas community, which includes Berry, has been lobbying since then to get it reopened.
Williams said a class of firefighter trainees will graduate on April 14, and they will be assigned to the Dorothea station, which is scheduled to reopen in the middle of June. That conforms to information provided by Fire Service in February.
As regards the grievances, Andrews and George disagreed on the number of cases up for mediation. George had given Pickard-Samuel a long list of cases, but Andrews said there is only one. George said that particular case had been amended to include others. Jessica Gallivan, assistant attorney general for labor affairs, disagreed. "No, they are not joined, not amended," she said, prompting Pickard-Samuel to tell George, "She's right."
George complained that the cases continue to go around in a circle, winding up at PERB where they get no action.
At one point an altercation broke out between Luis "Tito" Morales, Central Labor Council president, and Gallivan when the labor leader accused the lawyer of being "inflexible" and responsible for holding up the mediation process. Gallivan hesitated before replying, but then accused Morales and George of undermining the PERB and the collective bargaining process. She described one case where she said the two circumvented the process. Andrews defended Gallivan, calling her work "fantastic."
Sen. Vargrave Richards, a former PERB chair, said the Fire Service needs to have a labor-management relations committee and that the Legislature "is not the forum" for airing its internal disputes. He said, "We must find a mechanism to resolve our differences and issues."
The evening ended after about four hours with nothing appearing to have been resolved. Pickard-Samuel concluded, "Situations were brought to light this evening, and that is what is important."
Committee members attending the hearing were Sens. Berry, Douglas Canton Jr., Pickard-Samuel, Richards and Celestino A. White Sr. Sens. Donald "Ducks" Cole and Norman Jn Baptiste were excused.
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