Friday, December 02, 2005

Florida female firefighters...and now, the rest of the story

In the blogworld, there has been some coverage lately regarding a group of Clearwater, Florida female firefighters who have file a sexual discrimination suit against the city's fire chief who, for a period, banned the female firefighters from entering burning buildings. His reason?...he had heard rumours that the male firefighters had said that they would not back up the female firefighters when attending a fire. Therefore, the chief felt the need to protect the women from potential life-threatening disaster by not allowing them to be put into a position of danger. I have read numerous blogs and accompanying comments berating the chief (for not banning the men instead of the women) and berating the men (for obvious reasons). But the problem is, this "controversy" is the result of reading a newspaper headline, only the headline, and not investigating the story any further. The reality of this particular story is far different than the headline implies. This is not a story of sexual discrimination, but a story of political back-biting.

It seems to all begin with an article. It's a short story, just a few paragraphs, giving a brief outline that the women had filed a sexual discrimination lawsuit, naming the city's fire chief Jamie D. Geer and a brief description of the nature of the discrimination. But a little digging brings out a more complex and commonplace story.

This is a story of union versus management. It goes back a number of years with the age-old conflict of the union wanting higher wages and management balking at the demand. From there, it continues, and slowly escalates into behaviour ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime to the outright dangerous. And finally, it all comes to a head.

June 1, 2005: The union, claiming the Fire Chief is attempting to bust the union, decide to hold a vote on non-confidence in the Chief. The union announces that the vote will be held on September 20.

September 1: Chief Geer sends out a mass email (see page 18 for a copy of the email) to all fire department officials as well as a number of city managers. The e-mail calls the union leaders disgraceful and irresponsible and also contains veiled threats implying that union members' jobs are on the line.

September 17: The Fire Chief announces that the female firefighters are now banned from entering burning buildings. He justifies the decision with unsubstantiated references to rumours that male firefighters have said they will not support or back up the women during a fire call. He gives no evidence to back up his claim, nor does he institute an investigation into these claims. Keep in mind that the Fire Chief is well aware that the no-confidence vote will be taking place in just a few days. At this stage, it's not a stretch of the imagination to see Geer's ban as yet another tactic in the union/management war, the women merely being this particular battle's pawns.

September 19: Some of the affected nine female firefighters talk to the press. They say they have never been threatened by their male co-workers, have never felt threatened by them, and don't believe what Chief Geer is saying.

One of the affected firefighters stated:

Reached Monday, Fire Lt. Anna Rowell, a 12-year veteran, said she was never
threatened. She said she did not know who reported the threat.

And another commented:

"Having worked eight years with Clearwater and 10 years in this traditionally male job, I have worked very hard to be one of guys and make myself equal," wrote firefighter/paramedic Tammy Whitham in her complaint. "What Chief Geer did was rob me of that respect."

September 20: The no-confidence vote in Chief Geer is held and is passed by a margin of 87-34. The vote holds no legal weight, but certainly has a publicity value.

September 21: Chief Geer recinds his ban against female firefighters entering burning buildings.

November 30: Six of the women firefighters of the International Association of Firefighters Local 1158 file a sexual discrimination lawsuit against Chief Geer.

So, what does this all add up to? This isn't sexual discrimination as much as it is union/management headbutting. It's a story as old as the history of labour relations. Demands, counterdemands, threats, counterthreats, lawsuits, countersuits. But if you had read only the headlines you would have gotten only a fraction of the story.


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