Pa. fire department votes yes for union

Both sides have until May 28 to file objections before the vote is final


By Patrick Lester
The Morning Call

EMMAUS, Pa. — A majority of Emmaus Fire Department members have thrown their support to union representation in a vote that could have significant financial implications for Emmaus Borough taxpayers in years to come.

In an election this week to determine whether the firefighters favored representation by the Pennsylvania Professional Firefighters Association, 16 members supported union representation and five opposed, according to results released by the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board. Five other members' votes were challenged, but those challenges won't affect the outcome of the election. Ten of the 36 members eligible to vote did not.

While the result of Wednesday's election paves the way for unionized firefighters in the borough, it is not yet final. Both sides have until May 28 to file objections, according to the state Department of Labor and Industry.

"The union is pleased with the outcome," said Matthew Areman, a Philadelphia attorney who represents the Pennsylvania Professional Firefighters Association. "We are looking forward to sitting down with the borough to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement."

Borough officials did not returned messages seeking comment.

The union vote came after a Labor Relations Board hearing examiner issued a ruling last month, agreeing with the assertion that the firefighters are borough employees who have a right to unionize.

The borough fought that assertion, claiming the firefighters have been and should continue to be characterized as volunteers.

It's not clear what financial impact a unionized fire department would have on the borough, which has an annual general operating budget of $8.8 million. This year, the borough plans to spend $2.2 million for its unionized police force, which has 18 officers and a chief, according to borough budget documents.

The borough earmarks a little more than $500,000 in its annual budget for firefighting services. Of that, about $269,000 goes toward stipends for firefighters. The borough owns the fire department building and most of the equipment in it.

The firefighters are seeking to unionize under the state's police and firefighter collective bargaining law, which gives police and firefighters employed by a municipality the right to collectively bargain with the municipality.

The Professional Firefighters Association says it represents more than 10,000 paid firefighters in the state. It is a member of the International Association of Firefighters, which represents 300,000 members in the United States and Canada.

Once a union is certified and contract negotiations begin, either side may petition the Labor Relations Board for an arbitrator in the event of an impasse.

"I have had negotiations that go very quickly in the sense of just a few weeks and, similarly, I've had negotiations go on for years," Areman said.

Until an agreement would be reached, the borough would be obligated to maintain the status quo in terms of working conditions and terms of employment, Areman said.

The ruling by hearing examiner John Pozniak was based in large part on measures the borough and its council have taken in recent years relative to the operation and oversight of and compensation for firefighters. He wrote in his decision that the borough made the firefighters public employees by paying them hourly wages and "exercising significant control over their terms and conditions of employment."

The Fire Department has two members — Fire Chief James Reiss and secretary Victoria Schadler — who are employees of the borough and answer to the borough's administration

Council in 1999 passed an ordinance that established the Fire Department and several positions as "at-will employees and appointees." The ordinance also said that appointees were subject to the approval of council and that firefighters would be under the control of the fire chief "who shall be accountable to the borough manager and council."

The borough also reserved the right to establish rules, regulations and operating procedures for the department.

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(c)2014 The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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