By Taylor Sisk
CHAPEL HILL â€“ According to the attorney for two Town of Chapel Hill Public Works Department employees fired for alleged insubordination and intimidating behavior, the town failed to follow its own grievance procedure, hastily terminating the menâ€™s employment due to their active role in a unionizing effort.
Clyde Clark, one of the two workers fired in October, appealed his firing to the townâ€™s Personnel Appeals Committee last Wednesday night at the Chapel Hill Public Library in a hearing open to the public at Clarkâ€™s request. Kerry Bigelow, fired at the same time as Clark and for the same alleged reasons, went before the committee on Feb. 3.
The menâ€™s attorney, Al McSurely, has argued that his clients were fired in retaliation for grievances they filed with management that alleged racial bias in job placements and promotions and unsafe working conditions. The town alleges that the men were fired for inappropriate behavior toward supervisors and residents along their waste-collection route.
As was the case in Bigelowâ€™s hearing, the townâ€™s first witness spoke by telephone, identified only as â€œMs. Johnson.â€ She was joined Wednesday night, also by phone, by a â€œMs. Jones.â€ Both women said they had felt intimidated by Clark and Bigelow, but had asked only for a crew change, not that the men be fired.
â€œAll of my complaints were based on problems we were having with our trash collection,â€ Jones said.
The menâ€™s supervisor, Larry Stroud, said that working with Clark and Bigelow was â€œa rocky road,â€ and that he had written Clark up after receiving complaints of trash not being picked up along his route. Stroud said that he spoke to Clark about the complaints, but that Clark â€œacted like it didnâ€™t matter.â€
Public Works director Lance Norris said of complaints of the menâ€™s behavior, â€œWhen it rises to the level that youâ€™re intimidating citizens and yelling at a citizen â€¦ thatâ€™s when the line is crossed.â€
But in later questioning from the committee, Norris stated that he had learned from an investigator hired by the town that Stroud was going to his boss, Harv Howard, with complaints about Clark, but that they went no further.
â€œDuring the investigation, it was brought to my attention that Mr. Stroud had communicated with Mr. Howard and nothing was done,â€ Norris said. Howard has since been let go by the town.
Clark denied the claims of intimidating behavior.
â€œTheyâ€™d have you believe that I was out there acting like a maniac,â€ Clark said.
Of Johnson and Jonesâ€™ allegations, he said that growing up in Chapel Hill heâ€™d learned that as a black man it was important to be careful how you acted around a white woman.
â€œIf Iâ€™d done all that, I wouldnâ€™t be in this hearing,â€ he said. â€œIâ€™d be in jail.â€
Clark defended his efforts to organize town employees with UE Local 150, which has supported workers who have filed grievances, saying, â€œI donâ€™t see the problem with people wanting to sit down and better themselves.â€
He said waste-collection drivers try to save time on their routes and that as a result â€œthereâ€™s a high risk of someone getting hurt.â€
Clark and Bigelow were seen by town management as the two primary organizers for the union, McSurely said. They were denied representation in their meetings with management regarding their suspensions, he said, and subsequently werenâ€™t allowed on town property.
â€œWhat was the rush to get them fired?â€ McSurely said. â€œThe rush was that the union was building a movement at the same time and had a big meeting scheduled for the same day they fired them.â€
The Personnel Appeals Committee, comprised of Chapel Hill residents, has until Feb. 17 to make a recommendation regarding whether Bigelow should be rehired and until Feb. 23 for Clark. Those nonbinding recommendations will be presented to Town Manager Roger Stancil, who will make the final decision on both men.