THE BUZZ: State of the Union

By on March 15, 2016

Firefighters introduce organized labor to Jackson.

160316Buzz-1_origJACKSON HOLE, WY – The Jackson Hole Fire/EMS department has experienced tremendous growth in its recent history. The evidence was cheerfully noted at the annual Fireman’s Ball, which smashed records last year at the 75th annual event that netted more than $100,000 from 2,800 concertgoers—up 600 from the previous year.

Indications are also painfully documented in a ballooning budget. Operating expense for the department has doubled since 2013, hitting a whopping joint town-county FY 2016 budget of $5.7 million. The town and county share the bill for Fire/EMS with a 45-55 split.

Chief Willy Watsabaugh blames escalating costs in part on dwindling volunteer numbers. The trend began three years ago and continues to plague the department’s ability to meet expectations in a cost-effective manner. Jackson Hole Fire/EMS lost 62 volunteers between 2010 and 2014. There total volunteer force stands at about 50 responders. Few of those, however, are trained up enough to move into leadership roles, according to Watsabaugh.

As gloomy budget forecasts dog town and county officials, the last thing they needed was what happened last August when members of the full-time force opted to unionize. After two initial meetings with town and county leaders early this year, the collective bargaining process has revealed one certainty: It’s going to cost even more to keep first responders happy.

Hook and ladder

The new union is Local 5067, Jackson Hole Professional Firefighters. It is organized under the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF). Union president John Tobey and fire captain/paramedic James Powell head the 5067. After kicking the idea around for nearly a year, Powell said they took it to a vote last summer, committing to form a union if they got at least 75 percent of the full-time paid members on board.

What they got was 15 of the 18 full-time firemen agreeing to unionize. While wages and benefits were of some concern, the primary reason local firefighters sought union affiliation was because of the department’s unique work schedule.

“The fire department has always been a square peg in a round hole in employment practices,” Powell explained. “We work nearly 50 percent more hours, yet the county uses the same salary matrix [as it does with other department employees]. We work a 56-hour workweek, 48-hour shifts followed by 96 hours off, and that schedule just repeats over and over.”

To deal with the oddities of how firefighters work, county officials have added to the employee handbook a special section devoted exclusively to Fire/EMS. The amendment changes from year to year and that has caused some consternation for fire managers.

“We’ve had a lot of anxieties about changes to our schedule, the hours we work and the amount of time we have at home with our families,” Powell admitted. “We would just rather have a say in it. We wanted a seat at the table.”

Anxieties were undoubtedly heightened while hammering out the latest Fire/EMS budget. Firefighters fought hard for four additional fulltime employees—a $330k increase to the FY 2015 budget—after several scary instances where someone called 911 and nobody showed up.

“During 2015, our department had a few ‘failures of service,’” Powell said. “This happened a few times, primarily out of Station 1 in Jackson. Those day-to-day 911 calls are handled by full-time firefighters and supplemented by volunteers. There were times last year when we just weren’t able to have the station staffed adequately.”

When firefighters and paramedics do respond, they get there quickly. Even as volunteers disappeared and full timers were stretched thin, first responders out of Station 1 were able to shave 11 seconds off their average response time for in-town calls—from 5:43 in 2010, to 5:32 in 2013.

Does right-to-work mean union buster?

Wyoming is one of 26 states classifying themselves as “right-to-work” states. The Equality State is also an employment at-will state. The two are distinctly different from one another. “At will” means an employee can be terminated at any time for any or no cause. Right to work is more applicable to the organized labor argument; it means, simply, that an employee does not have to be a member of a union in order to be hired and, further, is not required to pay union dues where one exists in his or her workplace.

160316Buzz-2_origLabor unions have trouble getting a foothold in states like Wyoming where workers are entitled to any pay raise or workplace benefits a union has fought for but don’t have to pay union dues if they don’t want to, and cannot be hired or fired on that basis. In the case of the three full-time firefighters who opted not to join Local 5067, should they decide not to pay their union dues, they cannot be discriminated against and will be treated like the 15 other dues-paying members.

“The union is the sole and exclusive bargaining agent whether or not those firefighters are members of the union. You do not have to be a member of the union to be hired,” Powell said. “And we’ve found no hard feelings about not joining the union. One of our more recent hires elected not to join the union and that’s OK.”

Wyoming has very little history with organized labor. Most of the existing unions are in highly specialized fields including electricians, railroad workers, and miners. The oldest union is UA Local 192, a Cheyenne-based union of more than 500 plumbers and pipe fitters formed in 1905.

“The electrician’s brotherhood is really strong in Teton County,” Keith Gingery said. As a former state legislator and current county attorney, Gingery is uniquely qualified to offer perspective on the hot issue as many states are beginning to pass laws designed to weaken union strongholds. “Of public employees, firefighters are the only ones who can unionize in Wyoming. This law was somehow changed years ago and, since, we’ve seen fire departments unionize in Casper, Cheyenne, Mills and Sheridan,” he said.

In the case of Sheridan, where Local 276 took hold, the relationship didn’t last a year before union reps and the city were at each other’s throats. After contracting in 2010, trouble immediately followed when cash-strapped city officials tried to establish a wage freeze. Union organizers sued and won. The case was later overturned in the city’s favor in March 2013. The two parties had difficulty reaching a contract renewal in 2014.

During the spread of organized labor in the early 1900s, outspoken union proponents included Jimmy Hoffa, president of the Teamsters. He accused right-to-work states of waging a “war on workers.” Martin Luther King Jr. said right-to-work states promote a “false slogan” and “rob us of our civil rights and job rights.”

Data shows right-to-work states are continually among the leaders in the U.S. in worker injuries and fatalities, and the lowest in average annual wages.

Grinding arbitration

Local authorities have little to no experience in negotiating with union representatives. Teton County and the Town of Jackson are in an even more unique position because of the way the fire department is structured. Powell said typically union reps would negotiate directly with the fire chief. But Gingery said that is illegal in Wyoming the way Fire/EMS is structured.

“Back in 2004, all the seven fire stations operated independently. You still see some remnants of that in the Wilson chicken fry and the Hoback BBQ, for example. At the same time, the hospital came to the town and said, ‘We are losing a lot of money running the ambulance,’ so EMS was added to the fire department and the whole organization was folded into the county,” Gingery explained. “And in 1986, the Wyoming Supreme Court said staff cannot be negotiators in a collective bargaining process with a union. It has to be elected officials. In fact, in Cheyenne a number of years ago, they tried to send just two councilmembers to negotiate, and the court said, ‘No, it has to be a full board of town and county.’”

Collective bargaining can be inherently cumbersome and contentious. But state statute makes it even tougher. All members of the county commission and the town council—10 in all—must negotiate with union members and come up with a workable contract within 30 days of the onset of talks. That marks March 29 as the deadline for Local 5067 and town/county leaders to finalize a deal. The two sides have met twice so far but little has been done other than education.

“There really hasn’t been any negotiating yet,” Gingery said. “They laid out their positions: Here is what they would like, and here is where they are now. They want us to pay more into their pensions. They can retire at the age of 50 with full benefits. The salary thing is more about where you come in on the salary matrix as a new employee. [James] Powell has been very patient educating everyone at the town and county. It’s actually been enjoyable listening to him.”

If the two sides can’t come to an agreement by March 29, each would then choose an arbitrator and those two arbitrators would pick a third and enter into binding arbitration.

Powell is still encouraged at this stage even though he said the two proposals were fairly far apart and “not very closely aligned.”

“That being said we are also willing to make some concessions where necessary,” Powell disclosed. “We are looking for a two-year deal and they seem amendable to that. The county offered a contract proposal that pretty much represents the status quo. In an effort to negotiate in good faith we are staying in line with the current county contract [with some exceptions]. We’ll get into the details at the next meeting on Thursday [March 17]. We’ve set aside an entire day for that.”

Where the union is pressing hard is on starting pay for new hires. To make numbers work after agreeing to add four fulltime firefighters last summer, the county reduced the starting wage for new hires by 15 percent.

Powell said that punishes rookies. “The union is seeking to fix that wage gap,” he said. “It’s not fair to hire a firefighter today to do the same job as an older hire and pay them 15 percent less.”

The union rep also said what he is asking for would not bump salary for most of his force.

“The majority of full-time firefighters will not receive any additional pay should our contract be accepted tomorrow. The majority of us, myself included, would not see an extra dollar per year,” Powell stated.

It’s rare collective bargaining is such an open process. Because it involves elected officials, the entire negotiations are open to the public. Powell said he has enjoyed the process so far though he added, “It is very unusual to negotiate directly with all the elected officials in your community.”

Gingery, too, has been fascinated with the procedure.

“It’s kind of interesting,” Gingery admitted. “Normally something like this would be conducted in a backroom deal, but this is very transparent. For instance, I might have to say—in front of everybody, where the union can also hear me—something like, ‘I don’t think he’s right about that.’”

Chief Watsabaugh, who currently earns $92,714 a year, would remain independent from the union, solely in charge of hiring, firing, and disciplinary measures. Powell said the union’s relationship with Watsabaugh is solid. “We have very close ties,” he said. “He’s a great chief and a good friend to us.” PJH

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