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Flashpoint: November 2010

In February 2009 I wrote about an emerging trend of unionization of volunteer/paid-on-call firefighters. At that time, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union was attempting to organize the paid-on-call firefighters of Sudbury, Ont. I am not aware of any change in the status of that situation since I wrote of it 17 months ago, but the RWDSU has since made inroads into the ranks of Ontario’s firefighters.

November 1, 2010
By Peter Sells

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In February 2009 I wrote about an emerging trend of unionization of volunteer/paid-on-call firefighters. At that time, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union was attempting to organize the paid-on-call firefighters of Sudbury, Ont. I am not aware of any change in the status of that situation since I wrote of it 17 months ago, but the RWDSU has since made inroads into the ranks of Ontario’s firefighters.

In the last few months, the paid-on-call firefighters of Petawawa and Georgian Bluffs joined RWDSU Local 431. That local was established in 2009 as a dedicated RWDSU local for paid-on-call firefighters in Ontario. Now comes the news that the firefighters of the Rural Municipality of Springfield in Manitoba have been granted the right to unionize by the Manitoba Labour Board. In this case, the firefighters would be under the banner of the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union.

Paid-on-call firefighters are petitioning for and being granted the right to organize for the purposes of collective bargaining. So far, several groups of firefighters have taken courageous first steps, with partnerships with sympathetic unions; in the case of the RWDSU, I would say a sympathetic, entrepreneurial and ambitious union. None of those adjectives is meant to be critical. The RWDSU, whose members are primarily employed in the private sector, is definitely thinking and acting outside the box by organizing firefighters. Part of any union’s mandate is to seek to increase membership and it is seizing the opportunity. More on that in a minute.

As to why these paid-on-call firefighters are organizing, various reasons are given that point squarely at the issue of respect. Allowing for some subjective rhetoric, reasons given on the Local 431 website and in Manitoba media reports include: being tired of second-class treatment; changes being made to our employment without consultation; lack of input into procedures; not having a voice in the workplace; not being listened to; and needing more protection. Many of these would require a degree of local familiarity to fully appreciate, but the underlying issue of respect is clear.

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Along with the respect that will hopefully grow out of the new workplace relationships between union locals and employers, additional improvements are already in place in the Petawawa contract. Items such as seniority protections, a grievance procedure, regular labour/management meetings, clothing allowances and leaves of absence are included in one of the contracts, along with a one-time boot allowance of $120. I find that last one interesting, since one would have thought that Occupational Health and Safety legislation would already have required the employer to provide personal protective equipment wherever there are risks that cannot be adequately controlled in other ways. In fairness, entrenching a boot allowance doesn’t mean that the firefighters were not previously given proper PPE, it just stands out as an example of the importance of a formalized collective agreement. Hypothetically, the town may not have technically been responsible for supplying PPE if the firefighters were not legally considered to be employees. Now that question has been resolved.

One unresolved issue was whether the Springfield firefighters would have the right to strike. This was a concern attributed to a municipal official in one media report.
Allowing for differences in provincial legislation, there may, in fact, be an issue here that needs clarification.  In separate decisions, the Ontario Labour Relations Board had previously determined that the volunteer firefighters in Leamington met the definition of part-time firefighters under Ontario’s Fire Protection and Prevention Act (FPPA), whereas the volunteer firefighters of Hamilton did not. Factors considered in those decisions included whether firefighters were scheduled for regular shifts, whether attendance at emergencies or training sessions was mandatory and whether the rates of remuneration were nominal in comparison to full-time employees. One implication of the decisions was that the Leamington firefighters were prohibited under the FPPA from having the right to strike and the Hamilton group had no such restriction.

The bottom line is that a comprehensive employment contract or collective agreement, negotiated in good faith, is the only way to ensure that all rights and obligations are defined and guaranteed.  Then everyone can get down to the business of fire protection.

One further point: Outside of municipal amalgamations such as in Halifax, Ottawa or Hamilton, where rural volunteers have come under an urban umbrella, the International Association of Fire Fighters has not made any attempt (at least not publicly) to represent the concerns of volunteer, part-time or paid-on-call firefighters. These groups make up the majority of firefighters in Canada, and could benefit from proper representation.

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.


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