By Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Almost 70 black Cincinnati firefighters took the first step Thursday toward filing a federal suit against their union, alleging that the predominantly white unionhas discriminated against them for decades.
Members of the Cincinnati African-American Firefighters Association have to deal with things like being denied service at meal time and returning to Coney Island for the annual picnic, despite "years of (the larger union) being told" that many black firefighters had bad experiences there, according to the complaint filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The complaint, filed by CAFA President James Wright, accuses Cincinnati Fire Fighters Union Local 48 of perpetuating intolerable conditions for African-American firefighters in spite of past and current presidents' promises to change.
It's the first public airing of the racial issues that have brewed for years between CAFA and the union.
"We have tried quiet diplomacy and been ignored," said Wright, a cousin of Fire Chief Robert Wright. "Now it's time to fight openly for justice.''
Local 48 President Joe Diebold, in a statement Thursday, called the accusations "absurd, false and deeply offensive." The union, he said, is proud of its diversity and will cooperate fully with the EEOC. He said he had not yet read the full complaint.
Signed by 68 firefighters, it alleges that the union has done things as recently as July to retaliate against black firefighters who left the union in April 2001. The union, it says, created excessive reinstatement fees and ratified changes that made it more difficult for the firefighters who left the union to return.
Black firefighter Kenyatta Smith had his life threatened, James Wright said, when he tried to create a special patch for the department's 150th anniversary this year.
Other examples the complaint cited: denial of union representation on workers compensation claims;
The department, founded in 1853, was the first paid professional fire department in the United States. All 800 members are now required to be emergency medical technicians as well as firefighters.
The first African-American firefighter was hired in 1955. Now, about a third are African-American. About 24 percent of those with ranks of lieutenant and above are black, the complaint says.
The EEOC will issue a decision on whether Wright and the firefighters have a right to file a federal racial discrimination suit.
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