WOONSOCKET – The Woonsocket Fire Department would become the only urban fire district in the state to employ on-call volunteers under a cost-cutting edict issued this week by the Budget Commission – under the threat of a lawsuit from the firefighters union.
The on-call order was included in a two-part “enactment” which also forces members of Local 732 of the International Association of Fire Fighters onto a cheaper health plan after the union’s contract expires on July 1, 2014.
The enactment had been repeatedly placed on the agenda of commission meetings for months, but on Monday the panel finally voted 3-0 in favor of it, signaling that negotiations with the IAFF had stalled.
“That was a surprise to me,” said Capt. Michael Morin, president of the IAFF. The last meeting with the commission’s negotiating team ended cordially, with a union request for more information. “We all had our disagreements but I didn’t take it to mean that negotiations were over.”
The enactment is the last loose end of personnel cutbacks the commission had been attempting to tie up as part of its five-year plan to wipe out the city’s crippling deficits. Most of the major bargaining units in the city agreed to similar rollbacks on health care in the context of collective bargaining. The only exception, until now, had been Local 404 of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers.
When the commission imposed the enactments on the police, the union sued. A group of some 60 police retirees have also filed suit to block cuts in health benefits. Now Morin says the IAFF will join in with an unfair labor practice and, possibly, another lawsuit against the budget commission.
“The commission does not have the authority to break contracts,” said Morin. “They can’t just fill vacant positions with on-call volunteers.”
Aside from the legalities of using on-call personnel, Morin says the practice raises legitimate issues of safety for the public and firefighters. He said there is no plan in place to prevent inexperience or inadequate training of volunteers from putting other firefighters or the general public at risk.
Morin called it “a draconian change” in the operations of the Fire Department and lambasted the officials pushing it as “people that know nothing about public safety.”
“I’m opposed to this,” said Acting Fire Chief Tim Walsh. “The city of Woonsocket needs to have trained firefighters.”
Walsh said the commission never sought his input on using on-call volunteers, and it never had a formalized plan in place to launch such an initiative.
It may be so that Walsh was never consulted, according to labor lawyer Dan Kinder, who works for the Budget Commission. But he says, “Of course there was a plan.”
The details were ironed out with former Fire Chief Gary Lataille, who retired recently. Kinder said the plan was a contingency in case negotiations with the IAFF broke down.
“It was a well thought-out and comprehensive plan, which included training,” Lataille said during a brief interview Thursday.
But Richard Susi, a former Cumberland fire chief who now serves as executive director of the Rhode Island Association of Fire Chiefs, was skeptical – and shocked – when he learned the WFD had been ordered to use on-call volunteers.
“Wow,” was his first reaction.
On-call personnel are still used in some of the outlying suburbs, according to Susi, but they’ve pretty much gone the way of the dodo among the state’s urbanized fire districts, he said.
“Central Falls? No. Pawtucket? No. East Providence? No. Providence. No,” said Susi, quickly listing the cities who’ve foresworn volunteers.
Susi said it may be unrealistic for a thickly settled community with a high concentration of multi-family housing to think of relying on volunteers for a sizable chunk of its workforce. Susi doesn’t see training as a major impediment, but something even more basic – availability.
“It just doesn’t seem to be the way things naturally go,” said Susi. “In a modern society in our area, it doesn’t seem to make sense.”
Morin says the existing IAFF contract with the city entitles the union to 123 positions, but at least 15 of those are currently vacant. He takes the enactment to mean those could be filled immediately with on-call volunteers, which he contends is a violation of the contract.
Despite the enactment, it still seems possible that the on-call provision may be just a very public gambit on the commission’s part to bring the union to heel in negotiations.
Neither side says unequivocally that negotiations are dead. On the contrary, Kinder says the enactment itself contains language indicating that the contractual changes could become moot if superseded by further collective bargaining.
“We’re not declaring war on them, we’re not saying negotiations are at an end,” said Kinder. Rather, he said talks were “at a mere standstill and we needed to lay out what the alternatives are.”
Morin, on the other hand, says the enactments have put a chill in the union’s willingness to re-engage the commission.
“We might not be so eager to go back and talk to them now,” he says.
Neither Mayor Leo T. Fontaine nor Council President John F. Ward, the only elected officials who serve on the state –appointed budget panel, were present when the enactments were passed Monday. But Ward said that if he were present he would have supported the imposition of the enactments.
He said the restructuring and consolidation of the Fire Department is essential if the commission’s five-year plan to restore the city to a sound financial position by 2017 is to stay on track.
“It’s what needs to be done to achieve our objectives,” said Ward. “It’s regrettable it’s come to this, but it’s just as essential that we succeed.”
Efforts to reach Fontaine Thursday were not successful. The commissioners who voted in favor of the enactments were Carolyn Dias, Peder Schaefer and Dina Dutremble.