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Sept. 30, 2013, Toronto – I have hesitated to weigh in on the Toronto Fire Services tweeting story, because it has already received extensive media attention and did not seem to be part of any broader national fire-service issue. However, when I read about the one-week suspension of the president of Corner Brook, N.L., IAFF Local 1222 for taking out a newspaper advertisement critical of the mayor and council, I drew an immediate parallel.

September 30, 2013
By Peter Sells

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Sept. 30, 2013, Toronto – I have hesitated to weigh in on the Toronto Fire Services tweeting story, because it has already received extensive media attention and did not seem to be part of any broader national fire-service issue. However, when I read about the one-week suspension of the president of Corner Brook, N.L., IAFF Local 1222 for taking out a newspaper advertisement critical of the mayor and council, I drew an immediate parallel.

Some background: Three Toronto firefighters had their employment terminated on Sept. 16 after it was found that they had tweeted several sexist comments. Their IAFF Local 3888 has come under criticism by at least one newspaper columnist for standing up for its members by calling the terminations unjustified and vowing to fight for the reinstatement of the three. Another columnist questioned the city’s right to impose such severe penalties for what amounts to an exercise in free speech.

The Corner Brook story has received far less national attention, although it was picked up by the CBC. The advertisement in the Western Star was titled Five questions to ask your Corner Brook candidates. According to an article in that same paper, the focus of the ad revolved around firefighter safety, the services provided by the department, the cost of the department to the city, and re-investment into the force, and asked why the mayor and council were arguing that fire fighting is costly on a per capita basis. The ad concluded with a message to voters: During this election, please vote to protect us, so we can protect you.

Some principles for employees: Like it or not, workplaces have rules. When you are at work, you are subject to those rules. The employer’s stuff is not yours to do with as you wish; it’s not your locker, your computer or your helmet, so you don’t have the right to hang dirty pictures in it, look at dirty pictures on it, or stick a Harley-Davidson logo to it.

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Some principles for employers: Like it or not, your employees have lives and individual rights. You can direct their behaviour on the job, but not their behaviour off the job, and certainly not their thoughts in any case.

Some principles for everybody: Like it or not, union executives have to do their jobs, which are often not easy or even tasteful.

Some specifics: The Toronto tweeters’ messages were clearly in contravention of the city’s human rights and harassment guidelines. If these tweets were sent while the firefighters were on duty, then their behaviour was unacceptable in the workplace and the fact that they were not using city equipment is irrelevant. If they were off duty – and this has not been publically disclosed, to the best of my knowledge – then it is not the city’s concern since the tweeters were not firefighters or representing the city in any way at the time. The Corner Brook newspaper advertisement, on the other hand, was clearly placed by the local executive in support of its legal political activities. The Toronto terminations may have been legally justified; the Corner Brook suspension was not.

Some criticisms: Any criticism or invective that has been heaped onto the Toronto tweeters is well earned. These morons deserve no praise or support. But the Local 3888 executives fighting for the firefighters’ reinstatements should not be tarred with the same brush. I would compare them to a legal-aid attorney assigned to represent a defendant who is known to be guilty. The system demands a rigorous defence, and the personal feelings and opinions of the advocate are immaterial. Even grasping at straws is understandable, as when a Local 3888 rep pointed out that some of the tweets were repeating material from previously broadcast TV shows, making a poor argument, but an argument nonetheless. Could I defend a racist, homophobic or misogynist blog by claiming I was merely quoting Hitler or the latest gangsta rapper? Of course not; hate speech is hate speech whether you are the originator or a mindless parrot.

Some predictions: The city’s actions in Corner Brook have already been grieved. IAFF 15th district vice-president David Burry says the union will use whatever other legal channels may be necessary to fight back against the city’s attempt to prevent the union from exercising its right to represent its members. The local municipal elections were held on Sep. 24, and I expect that the mayor and council will get out of campaign mode and back to supporting the work of their firefighters. The grievances will be resolved in favour of the members.

The Toronto terminations will also be ultimately reversed, not because they should be on any moral basis, but because it is notoriously difficult to make terminations of employment stick if there are any shades of grey in the interpretations of rights, policies and legislation. I will not be surprised if the three are reinstated with full back pay, even if it takes a few years.

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 council of the Institution of Fire Engineers, Canada branch. Peter is president of NivoNuvo Consulting, Inc, specializing in fire-service management. Contact him at peter.nivonuvo@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter at @NivoNuvo.


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