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Flashpoint: Opportunity knocks for Sudbury firefighters

The late, great Rodney Dangerfield made a career of getting no respect. Some of his one-liners and routines still crack me up even though I’ve heard them hundreds of times; and his scenes with Kurt Vonnegut in the movie Back to School are simply classic.

February 5, 2009
By Peter Sells

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The late, great Rodney Dangerfield made a career of getting no respect. Some of his one-liners and routines still crack me up even though I’ve heard them hundreds of times; and his scenes with Kurt Vonnegut in the movie Back to School are simply classic. Dangerfield is the only person who was ever successful and happy while getting no respect. Anyone else in that position would have no choice but to seek respect elsewhere . . . 

Florida, 1950: The Miccosukee Nation, whose members were native to the everglades region, separated from the Seminole, who had migrated into Florida from other southeastern states beginning in the late 18th century. The problem was that the United States government had already recognized the Seminole and had no interest in extending federal rights and benefits to another tribe in the same region despite their separate history and culture. In a politcally savvy move, the Miccosukee, led by Chief Buffalo Tiger, signed a treaty of recognition, friendship, and mutual assistance with Fidel Castro’s brand-new Cuban revolutionary government in 1959. The Miccosukee praised their neighbour’s “victory over tyranny and oppression” and Castro gave them what they sought – recognition of the “duly constituted government of the sovereign Miccosukee nation.” As a result, the Miccosukee were federally recognized by the next U.S. administration in 1962.

Ottawa, 2005: Conservative MP Belinda Stronach, feeling that her input was undervalued, that her suggestion that forcing an early election posed too high a risk was being ignored, and that her party was not sensitive to the needs of the entire country, crossed the floor of the House of Commons to become Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development in the Liberal government of Paul Martin. Stronach’s grasp of the situation was clear, since she made the difference of one seat, which denied the Conservatives the ability to bring down the government. Regardless of her motives – altruistic or ambitious – the fact that she was in a Dangerfield position of getting no respect created the opportunity.

Which brings us to 2009. The 350-plus volunteer firefighters of Sudbury are being approached for membership by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. The RWDSU already represents some U.S. paramedic/firefighters. It makes sense that these firefighters would want to be organized. Just like career firefighters and workers in all industries, these people deserve representation. They deserve training, safe working conditions that reflect current standards and insustry norms, and wages (because, as I am sure to be reminded, they are not truly volunteers because they are remunerated for their time). In other words, they deserve respect. But why the RWDSU stepping up to the plate?

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Although this development out of Sudbury was news to me, I expect that the leadership of the existing firefighters’ associations in Ontario (whose remuneration I pay, in part) has been aware of the RWDSU’s actions for some time. Time will tell exactly how this plays out. It may be that some communities have been getting a free ride and will eventually be forced to move to a career or composite staffing model if extending benefits to hundreds of part-time workers doesn’t make economic sense. If so, that’s wonderful, provided that the town can afford the staff without cutting back in other areas. It may be that a fewer  part-timers can be afforded, but their individual commitments can be greater due to better wages and benefits. As I have said before, there is no one-size-fits-all staffing model for fire departments.

Another possibility is that the RWDSU will be successful and will go on to pick up additional members around Ontario and across Canada. In fact, that union has stated that its intention would be to do exactly that if it organizes in Sudbury. The potential membership base of volunteer firefighters is much larger than the number of existing career firefighters. Lesser dues notwithstanding, volunteer firefighters could have a greater political voice a few years down the road than career firefighters do now. What would that look like exactly? Where would that leave initiatives such as the Volunteer Firefighters Employment Protection Act (or Emergency Volunteers Protection Act or Volunteer Fire Services Act, depending on your province)?

The opportunity for the RWDSU was created by the existing untenable lack of respect afforded to volunteer firefighters. As surely as Buffalo Tiger and Belinda Stronach took advantage of unique political situations to further their goals, this potential new player in fire service labour relations has shaken the status quo.

Keep those cards and letters coming!


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 rpsells@sympatico.ca


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