City Wants Connecticut Fire Union Decertified

STAMFORD, CT &#8211 The city’s human resource director wants the state to decertify Stamford’s professional fire union for attempting to derail the mayor’s plan to reorganize four of the city’s volunteer fire departments, according to a complaint filed last month with the state Board of Labor Relations.

The request for decertification, a rare request under which the Stamford fire union could lose its collective bargaining rights, arises from a series of labor board complaints that the city and Stamford Fire Fighters Local 786 traded last month as months of contentious contract negotiations drag on. The union, a staunch critic of Mayor Michael Pavia’s plan to reorganize four of the city’s five volunteer fire departments, filed a labor complaint in March asking the state to block transfers of 50 union firefighters in volunteer districts to downtown fire departments, a requirement under the mayor’s plan.

In that complaint, the union accused the city of illegally subcontracting union work to a private entity, the yet-to-be created Stamford Volunteer Fire Department. Last month, the union filed another complaint alleging the city acted in bad faith by declining to discuss mandatory staffing levels during contract talks, and in response the city filed the complaint asking for the fire union’s decertification, among other demands. The union lodged a third complaint, which accused city officials of intimidation and stifling its members’ rights under labor law with the decertification threats.

“What we’re thinking is that he’s trying to coerce or intimidate the union of being afraid of his office and what he’s attempting to do to us,” union President Brendan Keatley said. “It’s all part and parcel of the mayor’s unlawful scheme to create a fire department and break a union. That’s all this is.”

The union wants the city to issue apologies to its members and promise to respect their rights under state labor law going forward, according to the most recent complaint. John Creane, a Milford attorney representing the firefighters’ union, said decertification petitions are usually reserved for serious incidents, such as when public employees go on an unlawful strike. This complaint, he said, followed a disagreement over Stamford’s city Charter, which relegates fire districts boundaries and autonomy for volunteer and career fire departments.

“Basically, what they allege is the city and union disagree what the Charter requires, and they asked the union be decertified based on that disagreement,” Creane said. “It’s ridiculous.”

Human Resources Director Emmet Hibson said he feels the union overstepped its bounds with its labor board complaints. He said the union wants to use the labor board complaints to dictate terms in ongoing negotiations regarding mandatory staffing levels and the mayor’s fire plan, and that the complaints interfere with the city’s right to contract with private entities.

“They sent a couple of complaints about bad faith themselves,” Hibson said. “And it seems they were trying to force our hand in negotiations and prevent us from moving forward and trying to control the issue as it pertains to the fire plan and staffing.”

Hibson said the arbitration process could resolve many of the issues in the complaints before the labor board issues decisions on the several pending cases between the city and the firefighters’ union. Hibson said city officials and the union plan to hold off-the-record talks in July. Labor department spokesman Paul Oates said the labor board plans to hold a hearing on the complaints in September.

Hibson said, to his knowledge, the state has never granted a decertification petition. He said he filed the complaint because of the union’s aggressive stance toward the volunteer departments participating with the mayor’s fire department consolidation plan, which was introduced in summer 2010. The union declared the volunteer departments “rival organizations” and led a vocal opposition to the mayor’s plan.

“If they are trying to eliminate the volunteers through this process, then it’s a close call,” Hibson said of the decertification request’s chances.

Keatley said Friday that the union told its parent organization earlier this year that it planned to cease considering Stamford’s volunteer fire departments rival organizations.

Separate from the collection of labor board complaints, the mayor’s beleaguered consolidation plan already faces an uphill battle. The city’s Board of Finance in April cut funding for the plan’s first phase of the five-year, $43.8 million plan. What’s more, the city’s Board of Representatives hasn’t held a public hearing on the plan and have tabled discussions on its approval for the past several months.

The city’s Charter Review Commission last month introduced changes to the city Charter that would render moot many of the issues contained within the labor board complaints. The Charter Review Commission recommending changing the Charter language to allow the fire service to operate under a single chief throughout the entire city. Under its current language, the Charter separates Stamford into six separate fire districts — five volunteer and one professional — each with their own fire department, chief and firefighters.

The mayor’s plan would use existing Charter language to consolidate the Turn of River, Belltown, Long Ridge and Springdale fire departments into a single organization under its own chief, operating with a mix of paid employees and volunteer firefighters. Those fire departments lost their paid firefighters during a labor dispute with former Mayor Dannel Malloy’s administration, and Local 786 firefighters from Stamford Fire & Rescue moved into temporary quarters in the Turn of River district to cover the staffing short-fall. Stamford Fire & Rescue already operated within the Springdale Fire Co. as part of an agreement made in 1997.

Under the mayor’s plan, new department would hire its own chief and 47 firefighters to help cover the northern half of Stamford alongside volunteer members. About 50 Stamford Fire & Rescue firefighters now work in the volunteer districts of Turn of River and Springdale to provide around-the-clock staffing. Those firefighters would be transferred out of the districts and into Stamford Fire & Rescue territory if the mayor’s plan is approved.

Using a public relations blitz that including roving billboards, rallies and radio advertisements, the Stamford firefighters’ union opposed the mayor’s consolidation plan since its introduction, arguing it does little to provide equal fire coverage to volunteer fire districts and creates deeper divisions between the city’s career and volunteer fire services. Pavia, on the other hand, said his proposal increases fire protection in the Turn of River, Belltown, Long Ridge and Springdale districts while maintaining the tradition of volunteer firefighting in Stamford.

From The Stamford Advocate.

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