KC, firefighters agree to mediation

Sunday, June 2, 2002

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The city and its firefighters union agreed to extend their labor agreement for another month and submit a dispute over pay to federal mediation.

The agreement had been set to expire at midnight Friday. It was extended through June 30.

"I think we're at a watershed here," James Baker, an attorney representing the city, told union leaders as Friday's negotiating session began.

Baker said the city and firefighters had worked hard during the last two years to improve their relationship and to create what he called a "world-class fire department."

But he said all of that could be jeopardized if the two sides could not get past their escalating tensions, which were capped by an apparent Memorial Day sickout by nearly 100 firefighters.

"A sickout violates more than state law," Baker said. "It violates that trust you have been building."

Louie Wright, president of Local 42 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, said the sickout was not orchestrated by union leaders. He also pointed out Friday that no service was disrupted and that no one left a post unrelieved on Memorial Day.

City officials said they had not yet determined the consequences, if any, for employees involved in the sickout.

The tone of Friday's negotiating session was more conciliatory than the testy exchanges of recent weeks, and both sides praised the mediation compromise.

"We think it's a positive statement that they've agreed to bring in a mediator," Wright said. "A neutral third party is a significant shift in their position."

Gary O'Bannon, the city's deputy human resources director, said that the two sides had gone as far as they could go alone at the table and that he was hoping a mediator could break the stalemate. O'Bannon said the mediator -- who will play an advisory, nonbinding role -- will not charge the city a fee.

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