HAMMOND | Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. has canceled a meeting to start contract negotiations with the city's firefighters union in protest over pending charges within the labor organization against City Council President Michael Opinker.
Hammond Professional Firefighters Association Local 556 filed charges against Opinker, who is the department's chief fire inspector, for “wronging” the membership by voting to support an overhaul of the city's insurance coverage.
The union is arguing that when Opinker voted for the ordinance union negotiators were denied the right to discuss insurance coverage in contract negotiations.
McDermott said he decided to cancel the meeting after he learned of the charges.
“I'm not going to negotiate a new contract ... while they are terrorizing the council president,” McDermott said. “I think it's complete intimidation.”
The contract expires at the end of the year, but McDermott said he didn't feel comfortable meeting with the union.
“I will not move forward until this issue is resolved with Councilman Opinker,” McDermott said, “and if that means we won't have a contract Jan. 1, we won't have a contract.”
Local 556 President Ed Lomeli said even with this week's setback, contract negotiations are at least two months behind schedule.
“It's not about the health care overhaul,” Lomeli said. “It's about his going against the union's efforts to negotiate. It's not about the overhaul whatsoever. It's basically about him taking it upon himself to negotiate on the union's behalf.”
Lomeli said the union doesn't like bringing charges against members and pledged that the situation will be handled fairly.
“I don't see the (correlation) between Local 556 internal charges and what it has to do with negotiating with the city of Hammond,” Lomeli said. “I don't see how that even goes together. We don't go and tell the Water Department how they should do their stuff.”
Lomeli said the union has requested that if the situation goes to trial within the organization, a neutral union hear Opinker's case.
He said Opinker could face being kicked out or placed on probation by the union if the charges are upheld.
In May, the Hammond City Council passed an overhaul of the city's insurance plans, a move that's estimated to save the city up to $3 million. In some cases, the plans will increase what employees pay in biweekly deductions.
Responding to the charges, Opinker said he was simply doing his job as a councilman.
“I was trying to save taxpayers some dollars and obviously our union is greedy, and they didn't see it fit to do what I did,” Opinker said. “All I was doing was doing my job.”