Firefighters Appeal Cuts to Labor Relations Board

image: Arbitration hearing at the Deep River Library. Not pictured is the capacity crowd of interested Deep Riverites, as well as several firefighters from other communities (credit: Vance Gutzman, NRT Oct 18, 2017).

In a desperate attempt to force Deep River to double the present number of firefighters, the firefighters’ union has appealed to the Ontario Labor Relations Board, with public hearings to start today (Oct 13) in the library.

Our firefighters still haven’t gotten the message that our community wants and needs a composite fire fighting force that provides better safety in addition to being more cost-effective. The community’s vote of 89 percent in favor of seeking a reduction in the full-time staff to two and adding a large number of volunteers, has meant nothing to the union.

Unions have their place in society, and I don’t blame them for looking out for their interests. But when they put their own interests well ahead of the community, as they are doing here by fighting the will of the people tooth and nail, I see a moral and ethical problem.

The union claims that the Town is violating the collective agreement by leaving firefighter positions vacant. For the record, the collective agreement contains no requirement to maintain a minimum number, and neither of the two recent arbitrations decisions have yet imposed such a requirement. Instead, the 2014 decision stated that the employer could bring in volunteers, “conditional on maintaining the existing complement,” among other conditions. Since the town hasn’t yet brought in volunteers, this condition does not apply.

In a revision of history, the union is blaming the town for the poor state of our fire department. The union would have us forget that town offered to guarantee the jobs of all firefighters until normal retirement, in exchange for the ability to bring in volunteers. But even that wasn’t enough. The union would have us forget that during negotiations about the use of volunteers, it insisted on proposals that would increase the cost of fire services and would restrict the use of volunteers, effectively negating the value of their implementation (see Town of Deep River, statement published in the NRT, July 30, 2014. Read the full statement).

Furthermore, following the 2014 arbitration, if the town brings in volunteers, Deep River taxpayers would be locked into its exorbitantly expensive fire department for what could be forever. After history repeated itself in 2017 – another failed round of bargaining and attempt to get relief at arbitration – the town was left with few options to reduce its unreasonably high costs.

Ironically, the union has accused the town of trying to close the fire department. If true, then this only shows how ineffective our fire department is, and how little it is valued, in its current state.

It is, in fact, the town’s legal right to close the department. The Fire Protection and Prevention Act only requires towns to have public education programs on fire safety and prevention.

Should the fire department be closed, I have no doubt that citizens could form a better fire brigade than what we have today.

If I were a fire fighter in Deep River, I’d be grateful to still have a job. I’d be asking whether toeing the union line, just so that someone else can get my job after I retire, is the right thing to do. I’d be asking whether it wouldn’t be better to join the ranks of 21st century professionals, who are open to change in how services are delivered to better deliver what clients need. At the end of the day, its not the paycheck that provides satisfaction, its knowing that you provide a valued service to your community.

— Published as Letter to the Editor in the North Renfrew Times, October 18, 2017.