Gary Mims, a stoutly built former wrestler deeply tanned from years under the sun, spent 49 years as a lifeguard on Tobay Beach, 21 as captain.
He is proud of the record under his watch: no deaths, no serious accidents, he said.
But Mims, who like other Oyster Bay Town lifeguards must reapply for his position annually, was told by the town in February his "services were no longer needed," he said.
"I was fired without cause," Mims, 66, of Massapequa Park, alleged. "They can fire anyone unless we have a union."
Last month, Tobay Lifeguard Association members voted 46-1 to begin the process of joining the New York State United Teachers to protect themselves, they say, from Mims' fate. Tobay officially opened for the season Saturday.
Town Supervisor John Venditto said, "I would neither encourage nor discourage the unionization, and I would be supportive of whatever decision the lifeguards collectively make."
The move toward unionization is intended to end what the lifeguards said is a pattern of discrimination, retribution and negligence by the town. They allege the town has shorted them on needed tools, such as whistles and buoys. They also allege the town limits their hours on the beach.
"Until Gary Mims was not rehired, I never heard any of those complaints," Venditto said.
A June 5 letter from NYSUT asks that Oyster Bay recognize Tobay's lifeguards as a collective bargaining agent. NYSUT has represented Jones Beach lifeguards since 2009.
All of Tobay's more than 60 lifeguards have signed union cards, said lifeguard Jeremy Thornton, 41, of Lido Beach.
Mims has filed complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charging "age discrimination," and with the state Public Employment Relations Board charging the town with "improper practice."
"The reason that Gary was not rehired had nothing to do with either age or unionizing activities," said Venditto, who declined to detail the reason.
Younger lifeguards said experience like Mims' is important to Tobay, which is 31/2 miles long with a 900-yard bathing area. "What he taught me in my first year, there's no better professional development," said Pete Marques, 27, of Massapequa. "If they can fire him without any pause, what's to stop them from firing any of us?"
The lifeguards await "voluntary recognition" from the town, NYSUT labor relations specialist Peter Lanzo said. If the town doesn't respond, a certification petition will be submitted to the PERB, he said. While the guards can't yet collectively bargain, they do have protection from retribution, Lanzo said.
"I don't know what's going to happen, but I have complete confidence that we took the right step," said lifeguard Kevin McSwiggan, 30, of Farmingdale. "There's power in numbers."