City to fill firefighter vacancies with on-call volunteers; union may sue

Some say the move is a ploy by city officials to gain the upper hand in union negotiations

WOONSOCKET, R.I. — Woonsocket's career department is set to become the only fire district in Rhode Island to employ on-call volunteers to replace eliminated career positions. The move is part of a cost-cutting statute issued this week by a budget commission.

Woonsocket Call reported that the on-call order was included in a two-part enactment — which also forces members onto a cheaper health plan.

The panel voted for the enactment 3-0 Monday, signaling the negotiations with the International Association of Fire Fighters had stalled, according to the report.

“That was a surprise to me,” said Capt. Michael Morin, president of the IAFF local. “We all had our disagreements but I didn’t take it to mean that negotiations were over.”

The enactment is the last personnel cutback set in place in order for the commission to begin wiping out the city’s crippling deficits, according to the report.

The city's police officer's union has already filed an unfair labor practice suit over the changes to pensions and health care costs.

The IAFF says it will now join in the unfair labor practice action and may file another lawsuit against the budget commission, according to the report.

“The commission does not have the authority to break contracts,” said Morin. “They can’t just fill vacant positions with on-call volunteers.”

Capt. Morin said 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, according to the report.

“I’m opposed to this,” said acting Fire Chief Tim Walsh. “The city of Woonsocket needs to have trained firefighters.”

Chief 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, according to the report.

However, the details were ironed out with former Fire Chief Gary Lataille.

“It was a well thought-out and comprehensive plan, which included training,” Lataille told the Woonsocket Call.

Capt. Morin says the existing IAFF contract with the city entitles the union to 123 positions, but at least 15 of those are currently vacant, according to the report. He takes the enactment to mean those could be filled immediately with on-call volunteers, which he contends is a violation of the contract, according to the report.

According to Woonsocket Call, the on-call provision may be just a very public gambit on the commission’s part to bring the union to heel in negotiations.

“We’re not declaring war on them, we’re not saying negotiations are at an end,” said labor lawyer Dan Kinder. He said talks were “at a mere standstill and we needed to lay out what the alternatives are.”

Capt. Morin said the enactments have put a chill in the union’s willingness to re-engage the commission, according to the report.

“We might not be so eager to go back and talk to them now,” he said.

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