By Troy Graham
Inquirer Staff Writer
In a federal lawsuit filed yesterday, an organization of African American firefighters accused the Philadelphia firefighters union of being "racially harassing and abusive" to blacks.
The lawsuit said union leadership was dominated by members of a predominantly white firefighters organization dedicated to ending a 25-year-old federal consent decree that paved the way for the hiring of many black firefighters.
The members of that group, the Concerned American Fire Fighters Association (CAFFA), have pushed their agenda at the union, the lawsuit said. It noted that the union's December bargaining proposal to the city included the request that "any and all quota-based hiring practices" be eliminated.
"They're using my union dues to do it," said Kenneth Greene, president of Club Valiants, the black firefighters group. "It's a slap in the face."
The president of Concerned American Fire Fighters, Mike Bresnan, said the proposal to eliminate quota-based hiring subsequently was dropped, in part because an arbitration panel has no standing to rule on the issue.
"The proposal came from the membership," he said. "It's a democratic process."
The lawsuit said the Philadelphia Fire Fighters' Union, Local 22, has no black officers and only one black employee - a janitor. Union meetings have become so divisive that black firefighters no longer attend.
"African Americans have no voice in the union," the suit said.
The lawsuit also cited numerous postings from the union's private, Internet message board that mock black firefighters as lazy and stupid, and use "ebonics" to denigrate blacks.
Among other remedies, the suit askes a federal judge to appoint a civil-rights monitor to oversee the local until it is no longer "a racially hostile union."
The suit seeks class-action status for the more than 500 black Philadelphia firefighters.
Bill Gault, president of Local 22, said the allegation that the union was racist was "completely not true." He acknowledged there was only one black janitor working for the union, but said "the ladies who work for me in the office are firefighters' wives."
"Two of them have been there longer than I've been on the job," he said.
Gault had not seen a copy of the lawsuit yesterday and could not comment at length. He said he simply wanted "everybody on the same page in the contract negotiations with the city."
At the heart of the suit is the philosophical battle over the 1984 federal consent decree, which mandated the hiring of more black firefighters and replaced an entrance exam deemed to discriminate against black applicants.
The consent decree, which resulted from a 1974 lawsuit, was extended indefinitely by a federal court in 1999.
Some white firefighters have begun to push back against the hiring and promotion processes.
This year, the city paid a $275,000 settlement to five white lieutenants who said they were denied promotions by exams skewed to favor minority candidates.
This summer, three white candidates for the fire academy sued, arguing that they had been denied entrance in favor of less-qualified minority candidates.
Bresnan's organization has been allowed to intervene in federal court on behalf of the three in an attempt to overturn the consent decree.
"We view it as antiquated," Bresnan said. "Most of the guys getting skipped over weren't even born when the consent decree was enacted."
He also said the decree harms black firefighters, who get "stigmatized" as affirmative action hires regardless of their qualifications.
Greene, a lieutenant with Engine 73 and a 17-year veteran of the Fire Department, said the consent decree was still needed.
While blacks make up 45 percent of the city's population, they account for just 27 percent of the Fire Department, according to the lawsuit.
They also are underrepresented among ranking officers, the suit said, although the commissioner, Lloyd M. Ayers, is black.
Ayers, a former president of Club Valiants, could not be reached for comment yesterday.
"No way is there parity or equality in this department," Greene said. "Based on the diversity of the city of Philadelphia, this department is not diverse at all."
Greene also said the Internet postings on the union message board prove that racism, which he likened to a fire, still exists in the department.
"To go to the union Web site and see them calling people of color 'animals' . . . it creates a problem for me as a leader," he said. "All you need is one segment of people to start it up, and it's rolling again."
Bresnan said there was "absolutely a racial division in the department, much of it over the consent decree."
Bresnan said that he, Ayers, and former union president Brian McBride met with Mayor Nutter in 2008 to discuss the consent decree. They talked about setting up meetings between CAFFA, the Valiants, and a Hispanic firefighters organization.
Those meetings were never arranged, Bresnan said.
"When you talk, stuff can be avoided, but it's just lawsuit after lawsuit," he said. "I'm still willing to meet. I think a lot of this stuff can be worked out."
The dispute over the Web-site comments echoes a lawsuit filed this summer by an organization of black police officers against Domelights.com, a now-defunct Internet forum for discussing crime and police news.
That Web site, founded by a Philadelphia police sergeant, hosted "blatantly racist" content, according to the lawsuit, which is pending.
The same lawyers, Brian and David Mildenberg, filed the Domelights and Club Valiants suits.
CAFFA was founded in Chicago in 1993 and also has a chapter in Cleveland. Until at least 2001, the lawsuit said, the Chicago chapter was known as the Caucasian American Fire Fighters Association.
The lawsuit said that at least three top union officers are members of CAFFA, though Gault is not. CAFFA and the city are named as defendants.
Bresnan said CAFFA doesn't disclose its membership. He did acknowledge that union vice president Kelvin Fong is a member, and noted that Fong is of Chinese descent.
Gault said CAFFA was just one of about "20 or 30" groups that firefighters belong to.
"Local 22 has nothing to do with CAFFA," he said. "You got the Irish kids, the Italian kids, the Polish kids. There's so many organizations."
He said he was disappointed that Greene did not give him a heads-up on the lawsuit.
"What their motivation is, I don't know," he said. "I thought we were all firefighters."
Greene, talking about when he saw the first union bargaining proposal, expressed a similar sentiment.
"I had to pray about it real hard. I was ready to blow my top. I couldn't believe someone could be so stupid," he said. "These are guys I crawled hallways with, I fought fires with."
The Philadelphia NAACP joined Club Valiants as a plaintiff in the suit, which also asks for unspecified payment in damages.
Contact staff writer Troy Graham at 215-854-2730 or firstname.lastname@example.org.