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Flashpoint: March 2012

In the end, it worked out. Corner Brook firefighters voted 95 per cent in favour of the city’s final offer and did not walk off the job.

March 19, 2012
By Peter Sells

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In the end, it worked out. Corner Brook firefighters voted 95 per cent in favour of the city’s final offer and did not walk off the job. It seemed like I had been reading an old newspaper that had been packed away somewhere for a few decades, or that maybe there was another town called Corner Brook in the United States or the United Kingdom – someplace dysfunctional. I couldn’t get my head around the possibility of firefighters striking or being locked out in Canada – not in this century, anyway. But there it was, in black and white.

One thing was clear: the firefighters of Corner Brook were not the instigators of the situation in which they found themselves. The labour-relations environment in Newfoundland was such that there were no options remaining other than to apply a rights-based tactic. A quick primer for you:

The path to resolution of a conflict can be through interest-based negotiations, enforcement of rights by one or both sides, or through the application of power. Interests, rights, powers. In the absence of a negotiated settlement, the threat or implementation of a legal strike or lockout is within the rights of a union or employer. Such enforcement of a party’s rights does not represent the application of power, regardless of the extremes and hardships that such action often imposes on individuals and communities. Examples of truly power-based solutions are wildcat strikes in which workers who are not in a legal position to withdraw services do so regardless, illegal pickets or blockades, work-to-rule tactics, or unilateral contracting out of services currently under contract.

Corner Brook firefighters had a legal right to strike. That is the essence of the problem. In 1985, under similar circumstances, they were backed so tightly into a corner that they exercised that right. Management staff responded to emergency calls in the interim, but, fortunately, there were no structure fires. After three days on the picket lines, both parties agreed to arbitration and a settlement was eventually reached. Had the strike gone into the fourth day, the stakes would have been raised when a building caught fire in the former town of Curling, near a large oil-tank farm. It is hoped that firefighters would have ceased their walkout in the event of such a fire, but that will remain a hypothetical exercise.

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Deep down, we all know that fire protection is an essential service, one that is a civic right and a moral imperative. However, what is right and what is legal are not always the same. Even what is legal under one statute and what is legal under another may not be completely in alignment. A quick read of Newfoundland and Labrador’s Fire Protection Services Act does not reveal any requirement for a municipality to have a fire department, but it does say that:
The fire commissioner shall . . . advise the minister, municipalities and industry with respect to establishing fire departments and the requirements for organizing and equipping those fire departments, for training firefighting personnel and evaluating their firefighting capabilities and those other fire protection requirements which may be necessary . . .

I’m extrapolating here, but if Corner Brook has a fire department then it must have been deemed necessary to establish such an organization. If a fire department is necessary on one day, then it must have been necessary for three days in March 1985, and it must have been necessary in January 2012.

Oxford defines necessary as “needed to be done, achieved, or present; essential.” A fire-protection requirement that may be necessary is therefore a service that has been deemed essential. Nevertheless, under the prevailing labour laws in Newfoundland and Labrador, Corner Brook firefighters apparently have the right to withdraw such service.

So, a strike by firefighters is legal under one statute, and contrary to the provisions of another statute. Clear as mud.

This is not an exclusively local issue. The root problem is that services that are essential to the ongoing health, safety and wellness of our society are not given equitable weight across Canada, or even within individual communities. Workers in any service that directly impacts public safety and/or the core infrastructures of Canadian society must be designated as essential and must have access to compulsory arbitration in lieu of the right to strike.

We live in the greatest country on Earth and we all deserve fire protection, law enforcement, health care (from pre-hospital emergency response to the best trauma centres and hospitals possible), clean water, waste management, public transit, well-maintained transportation networks and uninterruptable public education systems.


Retired District Chief Peter Sells writes, speaks and consults on fire service management and professional development across North America and internationally. He holds a B.Sc. from the University of Toronto and an MBA from the University of Windsor. He sits on the advisory councils of the Ontario Fire College and the Institution of Fire Engineers, Canada branch. Contact him at peter.nivonuvo@gmail.com


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