A noose is widely known as a symbol of hatred, especially against African Americans for whom lynching was a disturbing reality for many years.
Now a noose has taken center stage in a union dispute between white firefighters in west suburban Westchester, where work rule reforms are causing deep divisions between employees.
The troubles date back to September, when a white firefighter discovered a rope fashioned like a noose hanging inside his locker at the Westchester Fire Department, according to police reports and other documents recently obtained by the Better Government Association through the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.
Village officials do not believe the rope was intentionally formed and hung as a noose.
But the firefighter, Matthew Martin, felt he was “being threatened” and said there had been “tension amongst members of the Fireman’s union,” according to a police report.
Martin, who at the time was president of the union that represents Westchester firefighters, had been at the center of controversy within the department because he helped pass policy changes that did not sit well with some members of the rank-and-file.
As part of a deal in which the village agreed not to contract out fire department services to a private company, the firefighters’ union voted and approved a couple of contract revisions, including lowering the allowable blood-alcohol content for on-duty firefighters from 0.05 to 0.021. The legal limit for driving after consuming alcohol is 0.08.
Experts have said no amount of alcohol – beyond that from a sip of altar wine or cold medicine – is acceptable for first responders.
The BGA uncovered, in a series of reports from 2013, that many police and fire departments allow first responders to work with significant amounts of alcohol in their systems. Westchester, a small suburb on the west end of Cook County, was featured in one of the reports because the village board approved a union agreement that permitted police officers to work with a blood-alcohol level of up to 0.05, despite opposition from Mayor Sam Pulia.
Since then, Village Manager Janet Matthys said the administration has been negotiating to lower the allowable blood-alcohol levels in all of the village’s union contracts but so far has only been successful with the firefighters.
A major point of contention among firefighters, however, came with a change in rules about working second jobs at other fire departments. Beginning in 2015, firefighters are no longer allowed to perform firefighting and emergency medical services for another employer.
“We had a handful of guys that had to give up their secondary employment,” Matthys said. “They got very upset with the union board, especially with the president, that their views were not being represented.”
Two factions formed within the union and a lot of infighting ensued, Matthys said. (There are 28 firefighters in the department; 24 are union members.)
It was around this time when the noose-like rope appeared in Martin’s locker.
Village officials, however, dismissed the notion that it was meant to be a threat.
“This term ‘noose’ is very inflammatory,” Matthys said. “It’s a rope with a loop with a knot that doesn’t look to be more than two feet.”
After police began investigating the incident, someone from the fire department came forward and said he had found the rope on the ground, picked it up and hung it on the nearest hook to prevent a tripping hazard, according to documents and interviews.
“The fire chief explained to me that they do rope maneuvers all the time. So I said, ‘OK, I think we’re done here,’” said Westchester Police Chief John M. Carpino.
“It’s a shame that it had to get to that point where someone thought their life was in danger because of a rope,” he added. “I think it was a lot about nothing.”
“Obviously we take a person’s threat very seriously,” Matthys said. But the police “did not find any basis for a threat. The guys practice knots all the time with training rope.”
Martin said, “As president of the firefighters’ union, I was just trying to support our firefighters with this [contractual] language and support the community, the residents of Westchester, and subsequently I was personally attacked and ridiculed for it.” He referred all other questions from a reporter to the village.
In an email to Fire Chief James Adams, Martin said that there had been a series of “personal attacks against certain union exec board members” and that he was “not satisfied” with the village’s conclusion about the rope. He has since resigned from his position as union president but remains a firefighter.
In light of all the discord, the village board hired a consulting firm in recent months for roughly $28,000 to audit the fire department and study everything from finances to personnel management to response times. A draft is expected by the end of May.
The average salary for Westchester firefighters in 2014 was about $80,000 a year, records show. Most of the firefighters are cross-trained as paramedics.
This column – a regular feature called The Public Eye, appearing in the Chicago Sun-Times – was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Katie Drews. She can be reached at (312) 821-9027 or firstname.lastname@example.org.