Firefighters to vote on unionization

Four full-timers eligible to join

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Williston firefighters will vote on joining a union next week. Yet there seems to be little of the rancor that often accompanies labor organizing efforts.

The four full-time firefighters eligible to join the union are apparently happy with their pay and benefits. They just want to belong to an organization that heightens their sense of brotherhood with other firefighters, said Capt. Tim Gerry.

“Look around,” he said, motioning toward the sparkling equipment in the town’s new multi-million dollar fire station. “We have great working conditions. We’re not upset about anything.”

Municipal managers said they anticipated the move toward unionization when the firefighters were hired a little more than a year ago.

“It’s really not unexpected,” said Williston Fire Chief Ken Morton. “I think every career firefighter position in the state has been unionized.”

When they were hired, town officials set compensation at levels comparable to unionized firefighters in nearby towns, said Town Manager Rick McGuire.

“I think we’re already paying them very competitive wages and benefits,” he said.

Morton said the already substantial wages and benefits will ensure a union contract won’t strain the Fire Department’s budget.

Hourly pay for the four firefighters ranges from $17.72 to $21.04, said Susan Lamb, the town’s finance director.

The four full-time firefighters comprise only a fraction of the Williston Fire Department’s staff. There are also 47 “volunteer” firefighters who work on an on-call basis. They are paid an average of $10.30 an hour, Lamb said.

In addition to Gerry, the other three full-time firefighters who will vote on unionization are Keith Baker, Ryan Prouty and Sean Soper.

They were all hired in August 2006, the culmination of years of lobbying by Morton to have a group of full-time firefighters that can cover daytime hours when on-call staffers are often unavailable. Each of the full-timers is also trained as an emergency medical technician.

The union vote, which will be held Wednesday, Nov. 28, appears to be a formality. All four men have signed union cards, said Matthew Vinci, Vermont representative for the International Association of Fire Fighters. Gerry said he and the other full-time firefighters decided together that they wanted to join the union.

In addition to a sense of belonging, Gerry said the union also offers training beyond what is available through the town. He acknowledged that employees who unionize are typically unhappy with their pay, benefits or working conditions but emphasized that was not the case here.

“The nice part is we are extremely happy employees of the town,” he said. “We have no issue from the standpoint of feeling shortchanged.”

Despite upbeat comments on both sides, town officials took an action that signaled they would prefer the firefighters did not unionize. Vinci said the town could have accepted the signed cards as proof the employees wanted to join the union. Instead, the town insisted on an election.

McGuire initially said he “had no way of knowing” who signed cards. But when pressed he admitted the town sought an election in case employees had second thoughts.

“Having an election will give employees an opportunity to think about whether or not they want a formal arrangement,” he said. “It gives them a chance to vote against it even if they signed a card.”

Vinci said that as far as he knows, every full-time professional firefighter in the state belongs to a union. He said the International Association of Fire Fighters represents all but three of the 15 fire departments in Vermont that have full-time firefighters, with other unions covering the remaining departments.

Only full-time professional firefighters who have been on the job for at least a year are eligible to join the union, Vinci said.

If the vote is affirmative, the firefighters would join Williston police officers as the town’s only unionized employees. The majority of town workers are not unionized.

The situation theoretically could create friction if union contracts diverge from pay and benefits offered to other employees. But McGuire said he isn’t worried about having both unionized and non-union employees on the staff, noting that other towns have similar arrangements.

McGuire also said he is not concerned that the firefighters’ organizing efforts will prompt other employees to demand union representation. He noted that Williston periodically uses a consultant to ensure pay and benefits compare favorable to other towns.

“I think the firefighters are an unusual situation,” he said. “We treat all employees fairly, and will continue to do so.”