As president of the United Phoenix Firefighters Association for more than 20 years, Pat Cantelme turned the union into a political force — and, in the process, made it one of the most powerful labor groups in this right-to-work state.
But Cantelme is now on the other side of the negotiating table. He's part owner of a privately held ambulance company, Professional Medical Transport, or PMT.
And PMT, as I learned recently, has a big union problem.
Professional Medical Transport
Three years ago, PMT acknowledged a start-up group, the Independent Certified Emergency Professionals, as the official bargaining unit for its employees. Yet the union still isn't close to a contract — and it puts the blame squarely on management's unwillingness to play by the rules.
In fact, over the last year, the union has filed a series of formal complaints with the National Labor Relations Board. They allege that PMT has refused to bargain, disparaged them, and even put surveillance in their work stations to prevent them from organizing. They claim the company threatened to remove employees from active duty if they engage in union activity — and penalized union members by giving their shifts to part-timers.
If the allegations are true, they amount to a clear violation of federal labor laws — and a heavy-handed attempt to bust the fledgling union.
Last month, the National Labor Relations Board held a three-day hearing to weigh the charges. But while its decision isn't expected for months, another battle is now raging in Maricopa County Superior Court. There, PMT actually sued the union and its president, Joshua Barkley, for defamation and libel.
Reading that, you might think Barkley and his officers have engaged in a particularly nasty war on management — something, perhaps, like those dubious claims, in another recent union battle, that Bashas' was stocking contaminated baby food.
Instead, the claims appear to rest entirely on verbiage posted on the PMT union's Web site, www.icepaz.net. The union accused management of "stealing" the e-mails it sent to its membership. (It might've been more accurate to say that management "obtained" union e-mails, thanks to a disloyal member.) It also wrote that PMT had been "indicted" by the National Labor Relations Board when, to be accurate, it should have said something much wordier, such as "the board found enough evidence of wrongdoing to allow its case against the company to proceed."
Suffice it to say there was nothing that incendiary about the union's rhetoric. Rather than indicating that the union is out of control, in fact, the lawsuit demonstrates that PMT management is willing to play hardball.
That might be bad news from a public relations standpoint for any company. But for a company whose CEO made his bones as a union leader, it's damning as hell.
Jason Rose, a spokesman for PMT, distanced Cantelme from the labor trouble, saying he hasn't been involved. Cantelme owns just 19 percent of the company, Rose noted.
In a prepared statement, Cantelme's business partner and the majority owner of the company, Bob Ramsey, said that "there are few things PMT would like to accomplish more than a labor agreement with Mr. Barkley, and while we acknowledge that negotiations can get tough there are lines that can't be crossed. Some of Mr. Barkley's rhetoric has crossed that line."
Joshua Barkley is a former captain in the Apache Junction Fire Department. He left firefighting for PMT after seeing recruitment materials at his fire station. Since he'd been feuding with his supervisors, and PMT was promising similar compensation and benefits, it seemed like a chance for a new start.
Before getting hired on as a firefighter, Barkley had actually worked for an ambulance company for four years — a company owned by Ramsey, Cantelme's business partner at PMT. Barkley knew Ramsey was a tough guy to work for. But he trusted the company's promises.
Now, after a toxic three-year battle with management, he admits to second thoughts.
He admits, in fact, that he's worried about his job. Sure, the National Labor Relations Board would likely be livid if PMT fired its union president in the midst of a labor war. You just can't do that. But, he points out, the company is already fending off numerous "charges" filed by the union.
"What's another charge at this point?" Barkley asks. "They've got 10, 15 charges already." As for the possibility of being fired, "I sweat it every day."
As Barkley acknowledges, his union has had a terrible time maintaining its size, much less growing. Barkley says he hasn't been allowed access to new recruit training or a roster of employees. With PMT's 171 workers putting in odd hours out of far-flung locations, it's been difficult to let new workers know about the union, much less convince them to sign up.
PMT has used that to its benefit. The company filed an appeal with the National Labor Relations Board earlier this year, arguing that the union failed to sign up enough workers to count as the bargaining agent. Yes, they recognized it once, but with the current low level of support among employees, the company argued, it shouldn't be forced to come to the bargaining table now. Fortunately, the labor board saw that for what it was, noting that membership held steady until PMT cut the union's right to use payroll deductions. PMT has no choice but to deal with Barkley and his officers, the NLRB said.
Oddly enough, when I asked Barkley about Cantelme and his union ties, Barkley had nothing bad to say. He blames Ramsey.
"Pat hasn't been part of it," Barkley claims. "He's been straight up the whole time. It's the other side I've had problems with . . .
"Bob [Ramsey] was great, too, until it came to a contract that would cost them money," he says. "Three years later, here we are."
I'm glad that Barkley still trusts Cantelme. But I will admit to a bit more skepticism.
One of the charges currently pending with the National Labor Relations Board specifically accuses Cantelme of threatening the union with "unspecified reprisals" and "promulgating an overly-broad and discriminatory rule prohibiting employees from posting anything that is 'divisive, inflammatory or derogative towards employees [or the] management of the Company.'" I don't see how that can be blamed on Bob Ramsey.
Even worse, to me, is that PMT has won a good number of municipal contracts in the Valley by working Cantelme's union connections. Just look at the suburbs where it managed to beat out Southwest Ambulance to serve as the ambulance provider of record: Tempe and half of Chandler. Both suburbs are covered under Cantelme's old union, the United Phoenix Firefighters Association.
That's no coincidence. Cantelme's old union is a player in municipal politics, and trust me — when its leadership indicated to city officials that it was time to consider a new ambulance company, people listened.
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So when it's convenient, Cantelme's an old union guy, but when it comes to managing his own workforce, Ramsey is responsible? I don't buy it.
I can't help but think of Animal Farm. By the end, you can't tell the pigs from the farmers.
If you own 19 percent of a company with a labor problem, that problem is your problem. And if you're hanging out in the farmhouse, sleeping on the farmer's bed, and enjoying the farmer's food and wine, you can't pretend you're a pig anymore.
You're on the other side now. You might as well admit it.