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Ocoee, fire fighters union say contract negotiations are “going well”

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Norine Dworkin

Editor in Chief

Friday, May 19, 2023


Norine Dworkin

The city and the fire fighters union both say contract negotiations for the 2023-2026 agreement are proceeding "well," without the bitterness that plagued previous bargaining sessions.

The City of Ocoee and the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 3623 are deep into negotiations for the 2023-2026 collective bargaining agreement. After years of acrimonious bargaining sessions, there’s an air of optimism around these talks as both sides appear to have brought a fresh willingness to cooperate, leaving behind the bitterness that plagued negotiations past.

Assistant City Manager Craig Shadrix, lead negotiator, told VoxPopuli Tuesday he thought the bargaining sessions were going smoothly with “none of the posturing that was present at past negotiations.”

Chris Atalski, the fire fighters union president, agreed. “Contract negotiations are going well,” he told VoxPopuli in an email. “It’s much different without Jeffrey [Mandel] there.”

Jeffrey E. Mandel, regional managing partner of the law firm Fisher Phillips, had been the city’s lead negotiator during the contentious 2021 bargaining sessions. Those were beset by accusations of bad faith on the city and union’s part and finally resulted in the union calling for an impasse hearing before a special magistrate appointed by the Public Employees Relations Commission. The city and union ultimately struck a deal before the special magistrate made its recommendations.

Collective bargaining agreements last three years, and the current 2020-2023 agreement ends September 30. Fire fighters had worked for a year without a new agreement before the current agreement was signed December 17, 2021.

Shadrix, who told VoxPopuli he’s approached current negotiations with “no agenda,” said he “understands after a bad relationship, trust has to be built.”

He was optimistic that there was already tentative agreement on several contract items. Atalski confirmed that but said the tentatively agreed on items were “simple sections that do not have monetary values.”

The real test of this new spirit of cooperation will come when both sides begin salary discussions. Atalski said that he had received the city’s wage proposal but needed to “review it more thoroughly.”

In their last contract, fire fighters received a 12 percent raise over three years. Atalski told VoxPopuli in an April interview that with inflation, it wasn’t enough. “A gallon of milk, eggs, gas, everything’s going up and our raises aren’t keeping up with it.”

Wage discussions also tend to focus on boosting starting salaries to attract new hires rather than raising salaries for senior level employees who are already vested in their pensions and not considered a risk for seeking employment elsewhere. Higher starting salaries and static senior salaries create an awkward situation known as “compression” where there’s less of a pay difference between new recruits and veteran fire fighters.

“When the bottom raised up $8,000 over three years, the rest of the employees didn’t get that raise,” Atalski said in the April interview. “I’m not sure how committed the city will be to doing anything about that because we don’t lose senior people. We lose less senior employees and unfortunately, they’re only worried about them.”


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