Source: Sherman Publications

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Brandon firefighters to vote on IAFF union

by Susan Bromley

December 12, 2012

Brandon Twp.- A January election will determine whether full-time firefighters here become a union department.

Terry Chesney, secretary-treasurer for the Michigan Professional Firefighters Union, a division of the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF), said he was approached in October by township firefighters interested in learning about the IAFF and what the process was to join.

"In Michigan, the process is that you need a showing of at least 30 percent (of the eligible employees) to express an interest," he said.

In the township fire department's case, that would mean at least three of the 10 full-time eligible personnel expressed interest. Chief David Kwapis, Administrative Assistant Chris Fisher and paid on-call firefighters are not eligible to join the union.

Chesney filed a petition with the Michigan Employment Relations Commission and MERC contacted the township board as the firefighters' employer. During a Nov. 1 special meeting, the township board unanimously voted to not grant voluntary recognition of the IAFF as the sole and exclusive representative of the Brandon full-time firefighters and emergency medical personnel.

Granting voluntary recognition would have meant the full-time firefighters would automatically become a union, without having to vote on the issue.

"We denied (voluntary recognition), because we feel the firefighters should be able to make that decision through the voting process," said Thurman.

Chesney agreed and said the request was a formality in this case.

On Wednesday, Thurman released a notice of election from the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs that will be posted at each fire station in the township. The notice states that an election by secret ballot will be conducted under the direction and supervision of the Michigan Employment Relations Commission to determine the representative, if any, desired by them for the purposes of collective bargaining with their employer.

Ballots will be mailed to all eligible voters Jan. 3 and are to be returned to the Detroit MERC office no later than 5 p.m., Jan. 17. The ballots will be counted at 10 a.m., Jan. 18. A simple majority vote is all that is needed to establish a union.

"Each and every employee in the state of Michigan has the opportunity to decide whether they want to be unionized or not," said Brandon Fire Chief Dave Kwapis. "As far as them deciding to have this vote, this is their right."

On Tuesday, thousands of employees that are members of unions across the state, both in the public and private sectors, protested in Lansing as the state legislature passed, and Gov. Rick Snyder signed, the so-called "right to work" bills into law. The bills prohibit non-union members from having to pay union dues, but still afford them the benefits reaped by unions. Opponents have derided the bill as being the "right to freeload."

Firefighters and police unions are exempt from the law, so it will not affect Brandon firefighters should they choose to form a union.

BFD Sgt./Medic Billy Starr said the decision by some firefighters to put in for a union vote doesn't revolve around one issue.

"If the career firefighters choose to establish a collective bargaining unit under the IAFF in January, it would be for the purpose of having a stronger voice in their future," he said.

Chesney said the IAFF currently represents 126 fire departments in Michigan with full-time firefighters, and assists them with the tools, information, and training to negotiate with their employers and "just the ability to bargain as a group for wages, hours, and conditions of employment."

Currently, wages and benefits for firefighters, like other township employees, are determined by the township board. There have been several changes to healthcare benefits for both current township employees, as well as retirees, in recent years, as the township board seeks ways to cut costs. Most recently, in October the board voted to raise age and years of service before employees are eligible for retiree healthcare benefits.

"Right now the employer just says, 'This is what it is,'" noted Chesney. "If the (township firefighters) join the union, the employer would have to negotiate before they make changes. Things couldn't be changed on a whim before the contract expires and the union would have to agree to those changes. They come to a mutual agreement on those issues...You talk to most employers and they are not unhappy with their fire unions. We have a good track record of working together. We understand the harsh economic realities."