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Memphis Flyer Where there's smoke...

Has one of Memphis' oldest unions become corrupt, or are those charges just sour grapes?

By Heather Heilman

NOVEMBER 29, 1999:  Claudette Huddleston knew something was wrong. It was the night of Tuesday, October 12th, and something was telling her that Pudge Graham was in trouble. She knew he was supposed to have dinner at the home of mutual friends and hadn't shown up. She and her husband got in their car and drove all the way down to Byhalia, where Graham lived. They'd never been to his house, which was out in the countryside, and it took some effort to find it. When they got there, the pack of rescued dogs Graham took care of surrounded the car. The house was locked, but through the window Claudette saw Graham lying on the floor. He was dead.

Graham's death ended a chapter in the contentious 30-year history of the Memphis Fire Fighters Association, which he helped found. But it was not the end of the story.

A few weeks after Graham's death, two long-term members of the Memphis Fire Department sit in a far corner of a diner after work. They're smoking and drinking coffee. And talking. Once they start talking they can't stop. They talk for hours, as the sun goes down and night spreads across the city.

They've got a lot of grievances against the Fire Department where they have spent their lives. They say the department treats men like boys. They're unhappy about what they call a hostile work environment, management that presumes employees are guilty until proven innocent, unfair charges brought against those who question management, and unjust policies.

These are the kinds of complaints that unionized workers can bring to a grievance committee. Memphis firefighters have a union. But these firemen, who asked to remain anonymous, say that Memphis' Local 1784 of the International Association of Fire Fighters doesn't represent them. They say the local doesn't even have a grievance committee and that it often takes the side of management in disputes. In fact, many of those in management are voting members of the Local, including the fire marshall and the chief of emergency services, which these firefighters believe is in violation of the Local's bylaws.

"I have a problem with management being in my union," one firefighter says. "Our Local has turned into a real joke."

But current Local president Danny Todd says that the bylaws allow those who are ranked higher than lieutenant to be voting members of the Local -- they just can't be part of the bargaining unit. He declined to share a copy of the bylaws with the Flyer but says the complaints of the firemen who spoke to the Flyer were those of union members who had been through the local's democratic grievance procedure and are unhappy they didn't get the results they wanted.

"Majority rules," Todd says. "We run a democracy here. If they bring their grievances or complaints and they can get a majority to agree with them, then we're going to abide by what they say."

Russell X Thompson, who was an attorney for the fledgling Memphis Fire Fighters Association, believes the only real problem with the Local today is that it's gotten complacent.

"Everybody gripes," Thompson says of firefighters' complaints with the local, "and the union isn't put to the same test. We used to have a thousand people attend a union meeting. But it takes a common enemy, and it takes people with the character of Pudge Graham."

When Local 1784 was founded in 1971, the average wage for a two-year veteran of the department was a slim $8,000 a year. But low wages weren't the only thing firefighters had to complain about in the pre-unionization days. At that time, firefighters needed a political connection to get a job in the department. To keep the job and earn promotions, they had to do favors for politicians, such as mowing the yards of city commissioners and doing campaign work.

"There was no such thing as seniority, no right to pay raises," says Thompson. "They believed they would be fired if they didn't do what they were told."

Thompson, a former member of the state legislature, later helped Memphis police and public school teachers follow in the footsteps of the firefighters and engage in collective bargaining.

Thompson believes much of the credit for not only founding the firefighters' union but also making "progress for working people in Memphis" in general belongs to firefighter Robert "Pudge" Graham.

Graham had been one of very few white city employees who walked the picket lines with black garbage workers in 1968. Later, he approached Thompson outside congressional chambers in Nashville and asked for help starting a firefighters' union, even though prevailing opinion was that it was illegal for municipal employees to organize. Way back in 1936, six firemen had been fired for trying to organize. For years after, most firemen wouldn't even dare to think about a union.

Thompson says the incipient union got its big break when Fire Director Eddie Hamilton put out a memo that said any firefighter who parked a car with a union bumper sticker on a city fire station lot would get fired on the spot. Graham talked a rookie firefighter into testing Hamilton's will. When the rookie was fired, Thompson filed a lawsuit on behalf of the union in federal court, for violating the right to free speech and free assembly.

"Of course we won," Thompson says. After that, the union went public and Graham became its first president.

The union was recognized in 1971. In the early years, it battled with the city and the department almost constantly, over matters large and small, such as whether or not firefighters could have mustaches, or whether they had to line up at 6:55 in the morning when their shift didn't start until 7. Ironically, the fire department lost pay parity with police earlier in 1971. One of the first goals of the union was to restore parity, although 28 years later it still hasn't been successful. Also in 1971, the firefighters and police lost the right to have their overtime count toward their pension, when scores of policemen were able to retire with inflated pensions after working huge amounts of overtime during the civil rights disturbances of the late Sixties.

Kuhron Huddleston became president of Local 1784 in 1977. Those who believe the local has lost its way say the problems began with Huddleston. He was a "poor country boy" who became intoxicated with the limelight, the accolades, and the political power that went with his position, according to his ex-wife, Claudette Huddleston.

"They start off as simple people, but they get so impressed with who they are," Claudette says of union officials. "I saw it happen to my husband."

The local was negotiating its third contract with the city in 1978 when talks broke down. Negotiators couldn't come to an agreement on a shift differential for the evening and night portions of firefighters' 24-hour shifts. And they were frustrated by pay that continued to lag behind that of firemen in other major cities, even though the Memphis Fire Department was consistently rated one of the best in the nation. They felt a lack of respect from management that stung. They were expected to have strong bodies and weak minds -- something some firefighters say is still true today.

Firefighters went on strike for four chaotic, arson-filled days. Just as they returned to their jobs, Memphis police went on strike. Then teachers walked out. Firefighters went on strike again.

"It was getting more and more and more violent," Thompson remembers. "People were scared to death."

The strike was effective in getting people's attention, but it was a public relations disaster. Both the city and the union were under pressure to settle. But the rank and file was still largely unhappy with what the city was offering. When a voice vote was held at the union hall to decide whether to end the strike, many who were there say that the "nay" votes were louder and more numerous than the votes to go back to work. But Huddleston declared it a positive vote and hustled out.

To disgruntled union members, this was the first big sign that the will of union administration and the will of firefighters were no longer the same thing.

Today, most younger firefighters seem more or less indifferent to the local. Their dues are deducted from their paycheck (about $30 a month), and they rarely show up at meetings. Older firefighters may be more likely to take an interest in what goes on at the union hall, but one firefighter says he thinks continued frustration has given way to apathy.

"How many times are you going to go the union and get slapped?" he asks. "You want to give up; you want to say forget it."

Today, Local 1784 claims 1,800 members, including about 600 retirees. But there are rarely more than 30 members at monthly meetings. Sometimes they don't even have a quorum of 25. A few hundred members vote in elections. But when the bigwigs want to get something done, they can always get out the inner circle to vote for it, some union members say.

Critics say that, except for the article on salaries, the union's contract with the city has remained almost word-for-word unchanged since 1984. Danny Todd insists the Local always works hard for contract improvements. But some are skeptical.

"Danny Todd works for the city," one firefighter commented matter-of-factly about the current local president.

Huddleston retired from the fire department and as president of the local in 1988, but remained vice president of the International Fire Fighters Association District 14, which covers Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee. It's a position of influence within the International that was long held by representatives from New Orleans. But by growing the Memphis local's member base and lobbying hard in places like Birmingham, Jackson, Mississippi, and smaller towns, Huddleston was able to win the position, and the travel, money and perks that went with it.

Claudette and Kuhron Huddleston were married for 30 years, but divorced in December 1991. They separated a few years before the divorce, and in 1990 Kuhron changed the beneficiary of his life insurance in favor of the woman he would marry just days after his divorce from Claudette. Kuhron was struggling with progressively worsening alcoholism, and appeared to be on a path of self-destruction.

Claudette and Kuhron's split could have gotten ugly, but their acrimony was tempered by the concern they both had for their two grown sons and five grandchildren. Kuhron's sister Yvonne Crowell remembers she advised her brother to fight dirty in the divorce, but he answered he would give Claudette everything before he would hurt his boys or his grandbabies. According to the divorce settlement, Claudette received 40 percent of Kuhron's $1,550 monthly pension.

On the afternoon of November 1, 1994, Kuhron Huddleston was killed when the pickup he was driving was hit by a train near Osceola, Arkansas, where he was living with his second wife, Johnnie Lou Huddleston. According to his son, Doug, who was working on rental property with him that afternoon, he was wearing jeans and looking for his hunting dogs on a private road at the time of the accident. He had been scheduled to go to Bartlett later that evening and present the charter for the local in Bartlett. Officials from the International helped Johnnie Lou fill out the paperwork claiming that Kuhron had died on the job and allowed Johnnie Lou to receive a little more than $200 a week in workers' compensation.

Danny Todd arrived at Kuhron's Osceola home that night to remove union documents from the house. But an attorney for Claudette Huddleston suspects Todd also made a bargain with the widow.

"I believe Danny Todd cut a deal with Johnnie Lou," Patricia Penn says. In exchange for her help in getting Kuhron's District 14 vice presidency, Penn believes, Todd promised to take care of Johnnie financially.

Kuhron's will was never found, even though former union president Sam Posey told people he remembered witnessing it. Kuhron's secretary Sue Lampley supposedly had a copy, but she died a month before Kuhron. And others who knew Kuhron have a hard time believing he didn't have a will, especially since during his union presidency he made an issue of encouraging firefighters to fill out form wills.

At Kuhron's funeral, Danny Todd appeared at Johnnie Lou's side on the front porch of the funeral home as she received the condolences of the many firefighters who attended.

The union's insurance records show that Johnnie Lou received a $20,000 death benefit from Ohio National through Local 1784's policy. Under the Ohio National policy, which the local carried from 1993 to 1995, retirees under the age of 65 were eligible for only $10,000 in death benefits. But Danny Todd signed an insurance claim form dated November 21, 1994, in which he indicated that Kuhron was a full-time employee in good standing and eligible for a $20,000 benefit. The question on the form is a little tricky, however. It reads "Was employment (membership) full-time in good standing?" Since the union was the policyholder, this question could be construed to ask if Kuhron was a union member in good standing. He was, of course, but that still shouldn't have entitled him to a $20,000 death benefit, Penn says. Elsewhere on the form, Todd did indicate that Kuhron had retired in 1988. He did not answer questions on the form about whether Kuhron's death was caused by injury on the job or by an accident.

Todd refused to discuss the details of the insurance payment with the Flyer, but said that Johnnie Lou Huddleston got the benefits she was entitled to and did not receive special treatment.

After Kuhron's death, the city began sending his pension check to Johnnie, who did not forward Claudette her 40 percent.

Claudette Huddleston says she wasn't hurting for money. She is remarried and owns a successful salon in the suburbs of East Memphis. She's the hairdresser of choice for women of a certain age and class, not just in Memphis but for miles outside the surrounding area. If you've seen city council member Pat Vander Schaaf then you're familiar with Claudette's work. She's a specialist in big hair.

Patricia Penn has been a client of Claudette's for years. Penn, who went to law school after spending her younger years as a legal secretary, is now a partner with her son in the only mother-son law firm in Tennessee. Penn wears a steel-gray helmet of hair and a gold scales-of-justice pendant. She has a replica of the Ten Commandments in stone displayed prominently in her office and a WWJD? datebook. She describes herself as a "streetfighter" who "loves the fray." And she is the daughter of a Depression-era teamsters organizer.

Her father told her stories about the teamsters, of having his bodyguards beat nonunion drivers as he looked on. He was tried and acquitted of murder three times. His example and the stories he told left Penn with a deep impression of unions as probably a necessary evil -- without them there is nothing to prevent working people from being exploited by their employers -- but corrupt almost by definition and easily transformed into units of organized crime. If Penn is more than willing to believe the worst about the firefighters' union, or if this case has become a personal crusade for her, her father may be the reason.

Penn was not Claudette's lawyer during her divorce, but in 1995 she filed suit on Claudette's behalf to get back her 40 percent of the pension. Chancery Court Judge Neil Smalls ordered Johnnie Lou to forward 40 percent to Claudette instead of ordering the city to pay her directly. However, since the order, Johnnie has been complying with it.

But in the course of doing her research, Penn began to question whether Johnnie should be receiving Kuhron's pension at all. According to her reading of the pension, widows covered under the original pension plan could only continue to receive their husband's pension payments if they had been married for at least eight years, while Kuhron and Johnnie Lou had been married for less than three years. Instead, a lump sum should have been paid into his estate and divided equally among Johnnie Lou and his two sons by Claudette.

Penn filed a suit on behalf of Kuhron's two sons against Johnnie Lou and the city. Judge Small found that "the portion of benefits that were being paid to Kuhron Huddleston prior to his death should now be paid to his estate for the benefit of his heirs at law." Johnnie Lou's original lawyer told Penn that he agreed with the judge's finding and did not plan to appeal. But he didn't show up on the next court date. Instead, a new lawyer for Johnnie Lou filed a motion for a new trial. Deborah Godwin, Johnnie Lou's new lawyer, is being paid by Local 1784. The case is scheduled to go to trial again on December 6th.

Pudge Graham was investigating the city pension at the same time as Patricia Penn. He came to the conclusion that city retirees were being shortchanged in several ways. He tried, and mostly failed, to persuade union officials to be concerned about his allegations. However, Danny Todd takes issue with the charge that the local ignored Graham's questions. He says the local investigated all of his concerns. But they either didn't amount to much or the time to deal with them had long past.

One of Graham's concerns was that pensions should be figured according to the average of the employee's highest paid consecutive five years according to the original pension plan; the update of the plan says it should be figured according to the last year or the average of the highest consecutive five years, whichever is greater. But the city regularly figures it according to the last year of service. Todd says that isn't a problem because "in 99.9 percent of the cases, you're going to earn more in your last year."

But that wouldn't necessarily be true if overtime were taken into account when figuring pension payments, as Graham believed they should be. It's true that the overtime question was a valid issue, Todd says, but he adds that it was the local's attorney, Mark Allen, who uncovered the issue, and notes that overtime was taken away from counting toward pension benefits in 1971, while Graham was president of the local. The local should have addressed the issue at that time, Todd says, because now it's probably too late.

The city ordinance that took away from overtime counting in pension payments was illegal, Graham believed, as was an ordinance that stopped automatic promotion to captain after 30 years of service for police and firefighters hired after 1979. The Home Rule Charter clearly says that the city council "cannot diminish pension benefits or other fringe benefits provided for city employees." The fly in the ointment is that both ordinances were passed after being approved in a public referendum.

The Local is already in court with the city and the fire department over the 30-year captains' issue. The Local fought and lost a legal battle to prevent the captain's position from being eliminated in a reorganization of the department. Today, those who retire after 30 years receive a pension based on a salary that is more than a lieutenant's but less than a batallion chief's. The Local's attorneys are arguing that 30-year veterans should be able to retire with a battalion chief's pension, since that is now the equivalent rank of captain. But they are not arguing that the fire department doesn't have the right to take away automatic promotions for those who have served 30 years.

In contrast, when police department tried to stop automatic promotion to captain, Ray Maples, president of the Memphis Police Association, was able to nip the issue in the bud without going to court. He simply let Mayor Herenton know that he had received an oral opinion from the state attorney general's office stating that the police department did not have the authority to take away benefits guaranteed by the city charter.

Pudge Graham was also concerned that the pension fund never made a benefit payment to a deceased employee's estate. If a retiree died with no spouse or no dependent children, Graham claimed the money he or she invested in the pension was absorbed back into the pension. However, Ernest Moretta, Jr., the City of Memphis' manager of employee benefits, has written that in such a case, the employee's pension contributions should be paid in a lump sum to the employee's estate. Even if the city were to do so, however, it wouldn't pay any of the interest the money earned or any of the money the city invested for the retiree.

It didn't seem fair to Graham that employees were forced to invest in the pension, yet their estate would receive absolutely no interest on the investment. Most city employees have to contribute 5 percent of their income into the pension, and police and fire employees pay even more since they retire earlier. It looked to Graham like the city was trying to avoid paying pension benefits as much as possible, all the while bragging about the health of the city's $1.8 billion pension fund.

Penn was in agreement with Graham about the pension, particularly about the practice of not paying employees' estates. She realized even if she wins the battle to have Kuhron's pension paid into his estate, she will have to go back to court to try to force the city to pay his interest as well.

"The repercussions would be staggering," Penn says of her potential victory in the Huddleston case, adding that she believes that the fund owes payments to the estates of many city employees.

Pudge Graham and Claudette Huddleston had known each other since the early days of the union. But they hadn't seen each other for a while when they ran into each other one day a few years ago. As they got to talking, they realized they had similar concerns and suspicions about the union. An alliance and a deepening friendship was forged. They made a picturesque team. Graham had always been big -- hence the nickname -- and in his later years had become a department-store-Santa type, with rosy cheeks and a deep laugh. Claudette is a cross between Ann-Margret and a tough but good-hearted diner waitress, with her pile of red hair, fake eyelashes, and acrylic nails.

Graham was still active in the union and began to pester Danny Todd about Claudette's concerns as well as his own. Why was the union paying for Johnnie Lou's lawyer, he wanted to know. Todd wrote back that it was in the union's interest to protect the members' pension benefits, and that's what they were doing in Johnnie Lou's case.

Todd says that if Johnnie Lou lost it would set a bad precedent. He says it would jeopardize the right of surviving spouses to receive pension benefits. But he also says that "the pension fund has never made a benefit payment to an estate before." And Graham didn't understand why the Local is convinced that estate payments would be a bad thing. To him, that looked like a benefit for firefighters' families.

Graham wasn't happy with the Local's answer, and eventually decided to do something that got him in trouble with Todd. He provided Patricia Penn with the minutes of Local 1784's Executive Board Meeting on August 11, 1998.

The minutes of that meeting note that "D. Todd explained the Johnnie Huddleston pension case to the board and the potential ramifications for our members. Motion by S. Collier to have the Local's attorney take over the case if Johnnie Huddleston agrees. Motion passed."

In addition, there is this item: "D. Todd said that the 30-year captain's lawsuit was postponed at the request of the city. Now that Judge Small lost the election it is to our advantage to wait until the new judge, Judge Evans, takes over."

This was of interest to Penn because she, too, would have to try her case in front of Judge Walter Evans. She wondered why the Local expected Evans to be more favorable to them than Judge Small, and if they thought that Evans was in their pocket. She showed the minutes to the court and was accused of trying to suggest the judge was corrupt

"I was absolutely excoriated," she says. The next day, Pudge Graham got an earful from Danny Todd.

Todd believes Graham and other firefighters and retirees who have complaints about the Local have a personal grudge against the current leadership. He's not sure why, but he notes that Graham ran for president again after his retirement and lost.

"There's all kinds of stuff that they're throwing out there trying to make stick," Todd says. "They should try to handle their issues in house without going to the news media."

In Todd's last letter to Graham, he writes, "As being past president, you should know that a good union member argues his case, but when he loses he goes with the position taken by the majority." He adds, "Maybe you just don't agree with the responses, but as far as representation by this local, you have been represented."

In his retirement, Graham founded the International Retired Fire Fighter's Association and was working to get it off the ground.

"It was a dream he had," one of his friends says. "He just wanted to help firemen."

The Association already has several hundred members, including some from overseas. It includes both professional and volunteer retired firefighters. For now, it's mainly a fellowship organization, but Graham had ambitions for starting a retirement home for financially strapped retirees. He also hoped to be able to offer insurance benefits to members.

Graham appeared before Local 1784 to ask members to affiliate with the Retired Fire Fighter's Association. They voted against it.

Todd says the Local had no problems with the Association, it just seemed unnecessary because retired Memphis firefighters already have benefits and representation through the Local. The Association accepts as members non-union and volunteer firefighters.

But some union members say that Todd lobbied hard against affiliation. They believe that if Graham could offer retirees insurance, leadership was afraid the 620 retirees who currently belong to Local 1784 would jump ship. Without the the retirees in the local, its power would be diminished. Also, they say Todd held a grudge against Graham for his vocal questioning of the local's role in the Huddleston case.

There was something about the way Pudge was lying there that bothered Claudette. He was on his back, arms out, his Bible on the floor beside him, nothing disturbed or knocked over to suggest that he had fallen. If he'd had a heart attack, wouldn't he have fallen forward? She conveyed her fears to Patricia Penn, who provoked the ire of Graham's family by pursuing an autopsy on the day they were set to bury him.

One of Graham's friends offered a plausible explanation of why he was found in the position he was in. Graham had a bad back. He had retired early from the fire department with a disability because of a back injury. And many people with aching backs find it soothes the pain to lie on the floor. Graham, who was 62, was overweight, diabetic, and under stress. So it doesn't seem implausible that he could have had a heart attack or stroke; the coroner's report eventually showed that he died of a massive coronary.

Danny Todd says he had nothing personal against Graham and he was friendly with all union members because that's his job. He says Graham received all the recognition from the Local as any member who dies.

But at the first meeting of Local 1784 after Graham's death, there was not so much as a moment of silence or a word of recognition for the man who was largely responsible for bringing the local into existence.

"Pudge loved that union," Claudette Huddleston says. "It was like his child."


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