Fire fighters’ grievances fundamentally flawed

I sat in on part of the arbitration hearing for the firefighters’ grievances on Dec 13.  My remarks to the NRT below are based on my personal observations, the NRT reports, and the resources I referred to, here:

The union’s case before the arbitration hearing is based on flawed ideas such as:

  • the collective agreement should determine whether and how we deliver fire suppression services – in fact, the elected representatives of the community should determine these matters
  • that the town should have doubled the number of full time fire fighters to 20 or more in order to increase the safety of the firefighters themselves during fire suppression – in fact, volunteer fire fighters can provide provide for each other’s safety just as well.
  • that the recent attrition in fire fighters to four union members is contrary to “minimum staffing requirements” of the collective agreement – in fact, the only minimum staff requirement applies to the case in which the town elects to bring in volunteer fire fighters; as the town hasn’t done so, no such staff minimum staff requirement applies.
  • that more full time firefighters are needed as a back up to the paramedic service and that our police untrained to evaluate fire risks and advise people on their safety during off-hours – in fact, there are other ways to provide these services, including providing the police with basic fire or medical training, or the use of volunteer fire firefighters or paramedics.

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Full letter to the NRT:

The union’s case in the on-going hearings for the fire fighters’ grievances is fundamentally flawed.

It isn’t the role of the collective agreement or a labor relations arbitrator to determine whether or how a town provides fire suppression – that should be the sole responsibility of the elected representatives of the people who are paying for and receiving the service.

In fact, Jeff Nestor, a union advocate, testified in the Dec 13 hearing that the union had originally asked for a minimum staffing clause of 20 full time firefighters, which not only would have doubled the force at the time, but would have forced the town to maintain those positions in perpetuity.

The union’s approach was, unfortunately, typical over-the-top negotiating strategy, in which after asking for the sun and the moon, it then claims to be reasonable by proposing to settle for just the moon.

In this case, the moon that union wants is a minimum staffing clause of at least 8 full time firefighters.

Even though there is no such minimum staffing clause in the contract, the union is now asking the arbitrator to make the historic staffing trend of 8 or 9 union members binding on the town.

Such a decision now would not only force the town to hire, since as the unionized force has dwindled to four, it could take away the ability of the elected representatives of the people to determine the number of the full-time staff permanently.

The union is also taking advantage of confusion that persists around arbitrator Kaplan’s ruling in 2014.

In fact, although that decision did grant the town a right to bring in volunteers, that right was made conditional on, among other things, a minimum staffing requirement (the collective agreement and arbitration decisions are available on my blog: danielbanks.ca).

Critically, in the 2014 decision, the staffing requirement doesn’t apply unless the town brings in volunteers, a nuance that a casual observer would not realize from Nestor’s testimony about it.

The union argues that it needs the additional protection of a minimum staffing requirement because, as the NRT reported last week, Jeff Nestor claimed under oath that the town “was setting a path to eliminate the fire service,” and the language proposed by the town “won’t even be a protecting clause.”

Both claims are incorrect.

In fact, the town proposed a “no lay-off” clause that would have guaranteed that existing staff could serve out their full careers, thereby providing all the job security these individuals could need.

In exchange, the town requested the ability to add volunteers to the force, and thereby achieve its desired fire service model over many years after surplus full-time fire firefighters retire.

Although the town made a reasonable proposal that respected job security, Nestor testified that the union “could never agree” to the terms offered by the town.

Such intransigence does not reflect good faith bargaining in which any aspect of a collective agreement must be open for give and take.

(Nestor was incorrect to claim that no-contracting-out clauses “are a staple” of collective agreements for fire fighters, when in fact, the no contracting out clause is unique to Deep River.

Perhaps he meant to say, as the president of the Ontario-wide fire fighters’ union testified two weeks earlier, that minimum staffing clauses exist more commonly in smaller towns with composite fire departments.)

In second line of argument, the union has been calling the police to testify about lack of their lack of training to evaluate fire risk or provide medical services.

The union’s implication that the town should be forced to hire more full-time firefighters to perform these functions is fundamentally flawed as well.

Since in other municipalities volunteer firefighters are routinely trained for these functions, we could do that here as well, in principle.

Or we could negotiate with our police services board to have our officers trained in these areas.

Or if more paramedics are needed, then we could get more paramedics.

In any case, we don’t need more full-time firefighters.

Finally, I’m optimistic that a long-term partnership with Canadian Nuclear Laboratories’ fire department will render these issues obsolete in the future.

Daniel Banks, former Deputy Mayor, Deep River, 2011-2014