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Talk About Emergency Response Time!

For a man who just pulled off an unlikely victory over a more powerful and entrenched opponent, Shane Anderson doesn't look the part of the conquering hero.

A sheen of sweat is breaking out on his forehead, his face is unnaturally pale beneath its sprinkling of freckles, there's a slight tremor in his voice, and he's squirming in his chair. Sitting in the break room of Coral Springs Fire Station No. 43 one recent morning, waiting for the coffee to brew, Anderson is a tightly wound coil of nervous tension.

It's not enough that Anderson has for months been locked in a battle to organize a union for the EMS division of the Coral Springs Fire Department -- a battle he's had to wage against the vocal opposition of his superiors in the department. Now he's facing a growing suspicion that those same superiors are forcing him out of his job in retaliation.

Twice in the past three weeks Anderson has been disciplined for what a union representative characterizes as "penny-ante stuff, minor infractions." First, on October 8 he was accused of being late to report to a summons to duty. Nine days later he was accused of shoving a police officer at an accident scene.

Anderson's attorney, Noah Warman, denies Anderson did anything wrong in either incident. "In the first incident, they're saying basically that the time it took for Shane to ride an elevator from the top floor of a building to the bottom floor constituted unacceptable delay," Warman says. "For that, they gave him a verbal reprimand."

In the second incident, according to Warman, Anderson came up behind a police officer who was leaning in to check on one of the drivers involved in an accident and put his hand on the officer's shoulder to let him know that a paramedic was on the scene. "They characterize it as conduct unbecoming an officer."

Citing the confidentiality of personnel matters, Coral Springs Fire Chief Bill Fyfe refuses to discuss any aspect of the department's treatment of Anderson, other than to say that "nobody has threatened anybody's job."

For Mike Brown, president of Metro-Broward Professional Fire Fighters Local 3080, which represents members of ten municipal fire departments in Broward County, there's little doubt that Anderson's bosses are trying to establish a pattern of reprimands against Anderson in order to get rid of him.

"I really feel that they've been slapping this kid with selective disciplinary actions," Brown says. "I think it's retribution. Look, if you sit down and watch somebody in this line of work, you'll see that we do so many things, we're bound to stray outside the rule book at some point along the line. I think you can be scrutinized to the point that you're immobile, and I truly question how it affects his job performance. On the whole, I think he's held up real well."

Even so, the strain is beginning to show on the 28-year-old Anderson, who has a six-month-old daughter at home and "a wife who wonders whether I'm going to have a job come springtime. I've got a lot to lose," he says.

The reprimands against Anderson have come at a crucial time for his organizing drive. Last week brought word that the state Public Employees Relations Commission (PERC) had officially received and recognized Anderson's petition, thus clearing the first obstacle on the road to becoming an actual union. For Anderson it was a sweet payoff after months of late-night meetings and hard politicking.

In fact it was a better result than he'd dared hope for. While PERC requires that a petition draw the support of at least 30 percent of potential membership before an election can be held, the Coral Springs petition was supported by more than 90 percent of the rank and file, Warman notes.

That's quite a change from last year, when an organizing drive (which Anderson had little to do with) fell apart for lack of support from many new members still on probation. Since PERC requires the support of 50 percent plus one for a union to form, its creation seems assured at this point.

If a union does eventually form in Coral Springs, it won't be for lack of opposition from the top. Chief Fyfe makes no secret of what he thinks of having a union in his department. "Personally, I feel that as fire chief, I'm the best person to represent our employees to the city and get them what they need in terms of working conditions," he claims.

But that's just the point, Anderson argues. It's not that union supporters think they're so outrageously underpaid or that they're forced to work in unsafe conditions. The firefighters are uncomfortable having to rely on the chief to make their case to the city. "The chief has a conflict of interest," Anderson explains. "He has to answer to the city manager. His interest is to keep costs low and to not exceed his budget. It's only common sense that we should have someone else representing us."

Departmental leaders have been so explicit in their antipathy toward a possible union that they may have crossed the line of legality.

In September Coral Springs Fire Chief Bill Fyfe "individually interrogated employees about their union sympathies and threatened their jobs if they exercised their right to unionize," according to a letter the union sent to Coral Springs City Manager Michael Levinson demanding that the intimidation stop.

The letter also alleged that Chief Fyfe, along with one of his assistants and an assistant city manager, then called employees into what he called a "focus group" meeting five days later in which he spoke out against the union and warned that the city manager would privatize the whole department first before allowing a union to form. "The very next day at City Hall, Division Chief (Vince) Locurto told members of B shift that if they wanted to keep their jobs, they would vote against a union," the letter said.

While Florida labor law protects a supervisor's right to express opinions about unions, it does not protect threats made to influence an employee's vote on union matters. Such intimidation would be squarely against the law.

For their part city leaders deny that anyone connected with the city made any threats, implied or otherwise. James Cherof, labor counsel to the city, disparages the allegations as "mere posturing" and an "opening salvo" in what may wind up turning into a protracted battle. In a letter to the Local 3080 labor counsel, Cheroff wrote, "We believe that the comments that you reference in your letter (as reported by your "members") were either misperceived or reported to you out of context."

However, in a separate memo to Fyfe, city manager Levinson instructed the chief "not to engage any employee in a discussion regarding this issue without clearance and input from the city attorney."

So apparently the atmosphere wasn't good in the firehouse even before the double-barreled disciplinary actions against Anderson, who, in his previous thirteen months with the department, received just a single verbal reprimand, for improper use of the radio.

Minor though the infractions may be in themselves, Anderson has no choice but to take them seriously. According to Warman the city uses a system of progressive punishment in which each successive reprimand is more serious than the one before. So theoretically Anderson could be suspended the next time he's five minutes late for work, Warman says.

Meanwhile Anderson, described by a coworker as a "model employee," is treading lightly and thinking hard about every step he takes before he takes it. In order to wangle an interview with him, a reporter was forced to meet him at the firehouse at six in the morning, well before the day shift was due to begin. Talking to reporters isn't on the job description.

Brown, however, will talk, and eagerly. "This just ain't going to fly," says the veteran of more than twenty years of union activism. "This is 1997. Workers have the right to organize. If I can prove that there's any connection between the disciplining of firefighters and their organizing activities, we will have a problem."

If the city tries to get rid of Anderson, he says, the union would support him in filing a complaint with PERC alleging unfair labor practices. And Warman, for one, thinks Anderson would have a strong case, based on "his solid record as an employee followed by two reprimands in three weeks after he begins his organizing activities."

There's precedent for Warman's optimism. Last year PERC ruled that the Immokalee Fire Control District had illegally fired three firefighters for engaging in union activities. As a result the city of Immokalee was forced to rehire all three with back pay and benefits and pay their attorney's fees.

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Paul Belden

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