EAST CHICAGO — The Common Council voted Monday night to override a mayoral veto and bring back the firefighter’s preferred work schedule.
The 7-1 vote brought applause from a room full of East Chicago Professional Firefighters Local 365 members who had been rallying outside city hall, as they have for the last month, to end the swing shifts Mayor Anthony Copeland imposed on them beginning Dec. 7.
All four newly-elected council members, attending their first official meeting Monday, joined with four reelected council members to form a super majority that overcame Copeland’s refusal to sign an ordinance to bring the old schedule back as the law of the city.
But this labor dispute hasn’t been extinguished yet.
Carla Morgan, an attorney for the mayor, told council members the mayor would be declaring an emergency and ordering the fire chief to keep the swing shift in place.
Morgan said the council’s ordinance to roll back the swing shift was void because it violates state law which gives the executive power of setting work schedules for the city fire and police department employees solely to the the mayor and his department chiefs.
The council’s attorney, John Bushemi, said he respectfully disagreed with Morgan and told council members they have the authority to legislate work schedules for the fire department. Bushemi said their vote Monday night should force the city to return to the old firefighting schedule of 24 hours on duty and 48 hours off.
Councilman Robert Garcia, who will be president of the city council for 2020, added, “I don’t see an emergency. That’s just misinformation.”
Morgan said this disagreement between the mayor and the council requires a judge to decide who has the power to set work hours. She said the mayor filed a petition for a declaratory judgment last month before Superior Court Judge Bruce Parent, who has yet to rule on the matter.
When asked how long that would take, Morgan said she didn’t know, but she believes the judge is waiting on the council to respond to court about the mayor’s suit.
The mayor, who wasn’t present, has argued his new work schedule is part of his overall policy to curb excessive labor demands for longevity and overtime pay increases.
Union leaders counter the mayor put firefighters on a disorienting swing shift in retribution for union contract demands and the union’s support of the mayor’s Democratic primary opponent, John Aguilera, in last spring’s municipal primary.
The mayor counters that he harbors no animosity against the fire union since he defeated Aguilera by a more than 2-1 margin in the spring primary and the union didn’t endorse his Republican opponent in last fall’s general election.
Copeland said he has been reversing the city’s fiscal deficits since taking office in 2010, he has still given firefighters and other city officials pay raises and bonuses over the last decade.
The mayor and the fire union were at odds through most of last year and unable to agree on a labor contract.
Tensions flared when Fire Chief Anthony Serna began Dec. 7 a new swing shift schedule of firefighters working an eight-hour morning, eight-hour afternoon shift, and eight-hour overnight shift with 24 hours off between shifts.
Firefighters complain although the swing shift increases overtime work, the city isn’t traditional overtime pay rates. They argue the new hours causes sleep deprivation.
Firefighters said they have had to turn to the common council since the mayor had been refusing to negotiate with them in good faith.
The council introduced the ordinance to roll back the swing shift last month and passed it late last month.