WHEN EMERALDS FIGHT VULCANS UNIONS LOSE
When is it correct for a labor union to work with management to oppose back pay and other relief for the victims of management’s racial discrimination? Stumped? Well, take a look at this actual case to see if you can answer that by the end of this post.
The New York City fire department is composed overwhelmingly of Irish Americans who are formally represented by the Uniformed Firefighters Association (UFA), a local of the IAFF. By some recent estimates, 85% of its firefighters are men of Irish decent, leading to the group commonly being called the Emerald Society.
Given that the majority of NYC’s population is neither White nor Irish, it should surprise no one that the African- American population of NYC, including some Black firefighters, charged the city with discriminating against them by keeping them out of firefighter jobs. In particular, they charged that the entrance exam and related hiring practices had an illegal disparate impact on them.
However, rather than turn to the White Irish union for help, they formed something called the Vulcan Society of Black Firefighters and enlisted the non-profit law group Center for Constitutional Rights. The Vulcan’s wanted jobs, back pay, retroactive seniority, assignment rights they would have had but for the discrimination and other remedies.
Over the next 15 years the Vulcan Society filed a complaint with the EEOC, and convinced the U.S. Justice Department to sue the city for discrimination. Somewhere in there some firefighters formed their own group called “Merit Matters” to fight the Vulcan claims and the UFA intervened in the court case largely on the side of the management to fight off the claims of its African-American members and potential members.
In the end the Vulcan Society won federal court victories holding that the test did have a disparate impact on African-Americans, to which Steve Cassidy, the union president responded, “We are disappointed the court did not throw out the entire case.” When is the last time you heard a union leader publicly express the union’s official regret that his members and future members won their discrimination case against management? As the case was about to go back to court to determine the amount of monetary damages, the Vulcan Society reached a settlement with city management for about $98 million in back pay for Vulcan class members. It is projected that will be about $65,000 per class member.
It appears from various accounts that the union justified its decision to fight the discrimination claims because if the African-America class members won current union members would see African-American firefighters not only hired but also given retroactive seniority, putting them ahead of many of today’s White Irish union members on the seniority list for promotion and choice of assignment. While it is understandable that a union would protect current members from actions that will hurt them, one has to wonder why 15 years ago the union did not realize how important a diverse workforce is, particularly a public employee workforce. It could have used its resources to mediate or even force an earlier resolution. In the end, that would have been less disruptive for the average White Irish NYC firefighter than delaying resolution for 15 years when so much more harm must be undone.
But worst of all, the UFA likely hurt unionism generally. It created yet another example of unions being organizations that oppose widely supported social justice goals. During the Vietnam War some (too many) union NYC construction workers publicly fought anti-war protesters and just as publicly harassed women advocating feminism. Their behavior made unions substantially less attractive to the generation that would soon dominate the workforce, also known as potential future members.
The lesson to be learned here is that while unions, like most institutions, tend to protect the status quo so that their members do not lose anything, they have to resist that predisposition when it comes to workplace civil rights. When not advocating for the minority group they must at least perform as facilitators helping the employer fulfill its civil rights obligations with a minimum of harm to current members. The last thing any union needs is a membership divided along racial, gender, religious or national origin lines.
If you are interested in reading more about the NYC dispute involving the Mayor, Vulcans, UFA, and other groups check out the following: