11/8/08

Workers oust Teamsters by secret ballot

Teamsters decertification shocks politicians

Shock went through municipal councils more than a decade ago when Teamsters Local 880 organized Tecumseh's firefighters and later negotiated the first union contract in Canada for a volunteer fire department.

But with the current contract set to expire Dec. 31, Tecumseh's firefighters are saying the much-improved relationship with new Chief Ken McMullen and town council makes the union unnecessary.

Without much fanfare, firefighters voted 25-11 last month to decertify the Teamsters, says Dave Lessard, an 18-year veteran of the fire department and a spokesman for his colleagues. "Nothing against the Teamsters," said Lessard Friday. "A majority of the firefighters felt it (the union) wasn't necessary any longer."

In 1997, 30-day suspensions handed to two Tecumseh firefighters for publicly questioning the wisdom of lending a fire truck to the City of Windsor sparked the Teamsters' union drive.

INSURANCE BENEFITS

With the opposition from the council of the day who believed firefighters couldn't legally belong to a union, it took three years to get the first contract.

Rates of pay were never a big issue, but there were concerns about guaranteeing insurance benefits for firefighters who were injured or killed on the job.

Layoffs of some 16 firefighters followed the first contract, with claims from them that it was punishment for joining a union. The town and former chief Randy Cecile said at the time the consolidation of the Sandwich South and Tecumseh fire departments following amalgamation explained the shrinkage.

Today, the relationship with the new chief is good and morale is high, said Lessard.

"The biggest thing is the guys have come together real good," said Lessard. "Council has been very supportive."

Lessard said an association will be formed to handle communications with the chief and council, and co-ordinate fundraising for the many charitable causes that firefighters champion.

The decertification comes as the Tecumseh fire department is about to experience major upgrades in equipment for its two stations, and likely some additional hiring, says Mayor Gary McNamara.

McNamara said the town is investing about $1 million in two new fire trucks -- one expected shortly and the other by the end of 2009.

The town's first fire master plan will also be presented to council Nov. 25. The mayor expects some new firefighters will be needed, although he's not sure of the numbers. Some are in training now, he said.

McNamara said the decision of the firefighters to vote out their union was theirs alone, and the town was fully prepared to negotiate a new contract with the Teamsters.

A Teamsters representative couldn't be reached Friday for comment.

If future negotiations will be done through an association, "we're prepared to work with them," said McNamara. "We've got a great bunch of guys."

The 36 volunteer firefighters -- eight of them captains -- hold down full-time jobs and are paged for calls. Most make $4,000 to $7,000 annually, Lessard estimated. "We're certainly not in it for the money."

McMullen said he budgets about $10,000 a year on average for wages and training for each of the firefighters.

The only full-time employees are the chief, Deputy Chief Doug Pitre, Assistant Chief Bob Hamilton and an administrative assistant.

McMullen, a Winnipeg native who came to Tecumseh two years ago, said the current contract will essentially continue in place for now. "I don't have any major changes I want to make," he said.

McMullen said he wasn't around at the time the union was formed and can't comment on what led to it.

A former deputy chief in Oakville, McMullen said a major focus for the department will be increased training to improve firefighter safety at fire calls.

(canada.com)

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