Sunday, December 02, 2001

Firefighters working on race issues

Union members, mediators meet to discuss problems

By Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Cincinnati firefighters are meeting to try to resolve racial issues that have long divided the nation's oldest paid fire department.

        Talks between white and black firefighters, with help from federal mediators and local officials, started about a month ago.

        Among the sticking points: guaranteed representation for black firefighters on the executive board that oversees union operations.

Complete coverage in our special section.
        Black firefighters sit on the union's committees, but members have not been successful in getting elected to the four-member board. Without that board involvement, say members of the Cincinnati African-American Firefighters Association, the union is exclusive and does not effectively represent all its members.

        Everyone involved in the mediation is bound by a confidentiality agreement, so union President Mark Sanders and CAFA President Jeff Harris could say little. But both expressed hope that the talks will build trust among their 800 colleagues and produce some changes that will at least somewhat improve the strained relationship.

        About 280 of the city's firefighters are African-American. That's about 35 percent, making the fire division more diverse than the Cincinnati Police Division, which is about 28 percent black.

        More than 100 black firefighters withdrew from the union this spring, saying Local 48 did not represent their views. And both sides claim to be victims of nasty, race-tinged e-mail campaigns.

        Both black and white firefighters have sued in the past, claiming they were barred from jobs because of favoritism toward the other group.

        CAFA members gave Mr. Harris until Dec. 13 to work on the negotiations. Then, they'll decide if the effort has been beneficial enough for them to continue.

        Some of the firefighters who quit the union in April have since returned. And union officials insist they do include — and welcome more — minority representation on all committees. Curtis Chandler, who is African-American, leads the group's political action committee, arguably one of a union's most influential jobs.

        A black firefighter, Maurice Vassar, unsuccessfully challenged incumbent Mr. Sanders this year. But none of the other three board members faced opposition.

        Fire Chief Robert Wright, the city's first black chief, said he appreciated that his firefighters would agree to talk without being forced to do so.

        Tyrone Yates, a lawyer and former city councilman, said he is helping two federal mediators facilitate the discussions. They meet again Monday.


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