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Shortly after John A. Bartlett Sr. retired from the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department in 1979, he and his wife Joan moved to Cape Coral, Fla. The former captain left behind 27 years of battling blazes during steamy summers and frigid winters for a life of relative ease on the Gulf of Mexico. But he didn’t leave behind membership in the D.C. firefighters’ union. In fact, nearly 16 years after he left the department and Washington, Bartlett still votes in local union elections.

Bartlett, 64, says staying involved in the D.C. union, Local 36 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, is a simple matter of economics. His pension income fluctuates with the pay of active firefighters. But disgruntled union members hoping to decertify Local 36 say the voting privileges held by Bartlett and approximately 700 other retired firefighters have a more sinister purpose.

The group, which calls itself the Decertification Committee, says the vote allows retired members, most of them white, to team up with white active members in order to outnumber black voters in union elections. Committee members point out that the union gave retirees a vote only in 1986, just as black membership in the historically all-white union neared a majority. Today, committee members say, about half the union members are black.

Committee member Vaughn L. Bennett, a firefighter with Engine 14 in Fort Totten, says the vote is only the most glaring example of racism within the union leadership. He says the union fought black members who filed discrimination lawsuits against the city, but generally helps whites with promotions, legal cases, and union grievances.

“The Local 36 is a 77-year-old, notoriously racist organization,” Bennett says. Allowing retired members a vote “is unheard of….It was done to maintain a [white] majority where there is no majority.”

According to Joslyn N. Williams, president of the Metropolitan Washington AFL-CIO, such arrangements with retirees are rare, since these members pay lower dues than active ones and generally are not informed about current working conditions. Williams says he knows of no other local public-employee unions that allow retired members to vote.

For Bennett and the three other black members leading the committee, the unusual voting rights are evidence of bias in Local 36. Last spring, after months of simmering resentment over the voting privileges and other issues, the committee circulated a petition supporting decertification, which would nullify the union’s position as the official representative of D.C. firefighters. More than 400 firefighters in Local 36 signed the petition, and the D.C. Public Employee Relations Board (PERB) ordered an election to determine whether a majority of the 1,231 union members (excluding the retirees) agree. The ballots, distributed by mail about two weeks ago, are due Sept. 1.

The election is only the most recent outbreak of racial tension within the union and the fire department. A court battle forced the union to integrate in the 1950s. More recently, when black firefighters charged in lawsuits that the city unfairly administered promotion exams in 1990 and ’91, their union helped the city combat the suits.

Local 36 “spent our union contributions on attorney fees to fight against African-American members,” Bennett says, adding that the union refused to call for public investigations into alleged exam-cheating by white firefighters.

For its part, the union says it does not favor whites in administrative and legal matters and that including retired members is a matter of common sense, not racism. Local 36 President Raymond Sneed says the union voted to give retired members a vote because many of them, like John Bartlett, have a stake in fire department pay negotiations. He says he doesn’t have records showing the numbers of retirees who voted in recent elections, but he claims it is “much lower” than the number cited by Bennett—approximately 500 of the 700 retired firefighters.

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As for the court battles, union officials say they sided with the city because there wasn’t sufficient evidence that the promotion exams were biased. “They had their day in court, and there wasn’t proof,” Sneed says. Union officials believe there was no need for separate investigations because lawyers gathered mountains of evidence on the promotional exams for the two trials that resulted from the lawsuits. (U.S. District Judge Charles R. Richey ruled in favor of the city in bothcases, but the plaintiffs are appealing.)

But for the Decertification Committee, the sight of union-paid lawyers on the other side of the table was “a slap in the face,” as Nathan R. Queen puts it. Queen, one of the committee leaders, took the exams and wasn’t promoted, after two decades of service. He says the numbers tell the whole story. Of those who performed well enough in 1990 to be promoted, about 85 percent were white, even though only about half the test-takers were white. About 76 percent of those eventually promoted after the 1991 exam were white, but whites made up slightly more than half the firefighters who took that test.

“I would say my opportunity was shot down [by the exams],” Queen says simply.

The toxic element of race has made the decertification battle particularly bitter and personal. Rumors smolder in fire stations across the District—a white firefighter got special treatment on a grievance, the Decertification Committee faked some names on its petition. Labor officials around town had hoped that Sneed’s ascension to the presidency in March would quell some of the old tensions, since he and two others on the union’s six-member executive board are black.

But the movement for “decert,” as the jargon goes, began before Sneed took over, when a white captain named Thomas A. Tippett was president. Committee members say Tippett was behind the union’s support of the city in the court cases, and they charge that the city rewarded his aid with a promotion to a cushy job as battalion fire chief. The promotion came two days after the committee filed the petition—evidence that Tippett was feeling the heat of the decert movement and wanted out, committee members say.

Tippett didn’t return phone calls, but current union officials dispute the allegations. They say neither his promotion nor its timing had anything to do with the decertification petition.

Committee members say Sneed has only made things worse. They say he added to union bureaucracy and expenses by creating a third vice presidency and then hiring his brother to fill the position. But Sneed says Local 36 members created the position of third vice president in an amendment to the union’s constitution. And he says he appointed his brother Johnathan on the unanimous recommendation of the executive board.

The personal charge of nepotism masks a more malevolent charge that Sneed has sold out black members to get ahead. Instead of helping fellow black firefighters, Queen says, Sneed has tried to frighten Local 36 members into voting against decertification. Sneed sent a letter to members on Aug. 10 warning that they will have to wait at least a year before they can even begin the administrative process of forming a new union. “Therefore you will be without any representation,” the letter cautions breathlessly.

The committee disputes the alarming letter as a “scare tactic,” saying a new organization it is forming, the Professional Firefighters Labor Committee, could begin the administrative process for recognition immediately after decertification. Committee member Bennett expects that process to take only two to three months. PERB won’t say who’s right until after the election. PERB Executive Director Julio A. Castillo says doing so now might influence the election’s outcome. PERB’s inaction leaves both sides free to interpret arcane PERB rules as they wish, which only confuses most union members.

Whatever the time frame, many observers say the most serious problem with decertification is that it would kill off an effective union and replace it with an inexperienced one. Sneed points out that Local 36 helped save 235 jobs and avoid a 12 percent pay cut during the Kelly administration. Ron Richardson, a longtime District labor leader, says a new union wouldn’t have as much expertise. “That’ll be a brand-new group that has no influence and no institutional memory,” he says.

But for Bennett, the union’s problems are too long-standing to ignore. He not only blames the union for the racial tensions but also charges that it hasn’t done enough to fight recent cutbacks in the department, including a 30 percent reduction in the department’s budget since 1991. “Initially I blamed the city more for everything,” he says, “but I eventually saw that the union is the root of a lot of what is wrong.”

Most District labor leaders believe the decertification movement will fail, saying a majority of Local 36 members won’t want to risk losing a capable, if flawed, union. But either way, the saga won’t end after the election. If they lose, committee members will likely file an objection with PERB charging that the union’s Aug. 10 letter lied and thereby improperly affected the election. Meanwhile, the city wants to cut more fire department employees from its overburdened payrolls. “They need to figure out who their real opponent is, and it’s not other firefighters,” says Richardson.