Ladder 123

HOUSE FIRE: A Firefighter who was fired for insubordination five years ago when he defied an order to stop wearing t-shirts critical of a judge's decision in a Vulcan Society lawsuit claiming the Firefighter exam was biased against minority candidates has accused the Fire Department of a double standard in allowing a black Firefighter to wear a Black Lives Matter t-shirt on duty there. The firehouse is the only majority-black one in the city.

A Black Lives Matter T-shirt being worn by members of the firehouse of Engine Co. 234/Ladder Co. 123 in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, which incorporates an FDNY logo and a Black Power fist, has prompted protests from a former Firefighter who was fired in 2015 for wearing a T-shirt there opposing racial hiring quotas.

Thomas Buttaro was terminated for insubordination and creating a hostile work environment by repeatedly wearing t-shirts opposing affirmative action around the firehouse. He has continued to contest his firing and earlier this year filed a lawsuit in State Supreme Court.

'A Slap in the Face'

He had 13 years on the job at the time an African-American co-worker brought an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint against him in May 2012. Mr. Buttaro was aligned with the Merit Matters faction of firefighters that staunchly opposed the successful employment discrimination lawsuit brought by the Vulcan Society of black firefighters.

FDNY Tshirt

Mr. Buttaro told the New York Post that the BLM shirt, which included the phrases "Never Forget" and "400 Years of Slavery," was "a slap in the face."

"My off-duty dress to and from work was regulated. The photo of the BLM shirt was taken while the wearer was on duty," he told The Post. "I find it a divisive shirt to be worn in the firehouse."

Retired Firefighter Khalid Baylor, president of the Vulcan Society, rejected the notion that there was any equivalence between Mr. Buttaro's case and the BLM t-shirt.

"It just is not the same," he said during a phone interview. "The shirt the Firefighters made was in response to frustration with the two separate justices. There is black justice and there is white justice, and that is the essence of Black Lives Matter."

Stirring Up Division?

He said that the story in The Post was an effort "to try and rake the coals to get something going with racial divisions."

On Sept. 4, before the Post story appeared, FDNY Chief of Operations Thomas Richardson sent out a department-wide memo reminding members of the service that they were required to comply with the departmental dress code which stipulates that "at no time may a T-shirt be worn" instead of FDNY-issued work shirts.

"Chief Officers, Company Officers, and Firefighters are reminded of their responsibility to adhere to the Regulations of the Uniformed Force Chapter 29 as it pertains to Uniforms and Equipment," the internal FDNY memo directed. "Members are required to be in proper uniform...at all times while on-duty, both in and out of quarters."

The timing of the advisory concerned Mr. Baylor, who observed that throughout the department firefighters wore a variety of T-shirts to "show their pride in their organizations and ethnicities. You see Irish T-shirts and Italian T-shirts."

He continued, "I am all for the uniform, but T-shirts were being worn before the order was issued, and only after the BLM T-shirt was debuted did they put out the memo on the enforcement of the uniform policy."

History of Court Battle 

The Vulcan Society challenged the fairness and job-relatedness of the 1999 and 2002 exams for Firefighter. In 2007, the U.S. Department of Justice under President George W. Bush intervened in its lawsuit alleging that the city had discriminated against black and Hispanic applicants with those exams.

The DOJ alleged that "the City's use of these examinations had an unlawful disparate effect on black and Hispanic applicants and did not adequately determine who was or was not qualified for the job of entry-level firefighter."

U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis ruled in favor of the Vulcans, prompting an appeal by the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. In 2014, the de Blasio administration settled the case for $98 million. Merit Matters was a group of white firefighters who maintained the FDNY's efforts at diversifying would result in the lowering of standards.

Mr. Buttaro was a member of the group and wore a T-shirt in the firehouse kitchen that read, "Minorities Against Dumbing Down" the FDNY, and "Getting this the old-fashioned way: earning it." A black firefighter said he found it offensive, but Mr. Buttaro refused to remove it. He later put on another T-shirt opposing affirmative action after a Lieutenant told him to change.

He contends that his firing was a violation of his First Amendment rights and that he was abandoned by his union, the Uniformed Firefighters Association.

Sues Union and FDNY

According to a letter from his attorney, David Antwork, the recently filed lawsuit cited as defendants the UFA, the Fire Department, the city Office of Collective Bargaining and the Board of Collective Bargaining "to challenge the Board's erroneous dismissal of the improper practice petitions he had filed against his union."

"The UFA affirmatively concealed its malfeasance, backroom deals and efforts to undermine Mr. Buttaro's grievances and the arbitration process against the FDNY in an attempt to sabotage his grievances and the grievance arbitration process before the OCB," wrote Mr. Antwork. "The OCB ignored relevant facts and law, including its own prior authority, in dismissing Mr. Buttaro's improper practice petitions as untimely and the BCB's decisions denying Petitioner's appeals and affirming the determinations of the OCB were arbitrary and capricious, contrary to law, an abuse of discretion and were not supported by substantial evidence or a rational basis on the record."

At the time of Mr. Buttaro's termination, then-UFA President Stephen Cassidy defended its representation of him.

"The reality is that the UFA spent over $30,000 in legal fees to represent Firefighter Buttaro and we strongly advised him not to go to OATH because we didn't think that he would succeed in winning his case," he told this newspaper. "He disregarded the advice of the [union's] general counsel. The UFA met all our obligations and gave him good advice that he did not take."


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