Canadian volunteer firefighters win right to unionize

The firefighters are paid an hourly wage for every call they respond to

By Kevin Rollason
The Winnipeg Free Press

SPRINGFIELD, Canada — They are volunteers and have full-time jobs elsewhere, but firefighters in the Rural Municipality of Springfield have become the first such fire department in the province to be granted the right to form a union.

The Manitoba Labour Board made the ruling last week in a 10-page written decision after holding hearings earlier this summer and hearing from the firefighters themselves and representatives of the municipality, which is located just beyond the eastern border of Winnipeg.

Bill Anderson, director of negotiations with the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union, said the labour board agreed to automatically make the firefighters part of a union after more than 75 per cent of them signed union cards and after determining they were employees of the municipality.

The firefighters are paid an hourly wage for every call they respond to.

"These are the first volunteer firefighters in Manitoba to be certified," Anderson said Wednesday. "It isn't the money or benefits that's an issue. They have concerns about the direction where the fire department is going. They are really concerned there are problems and they are not being listened to.

"They really feel they need more protection."

When asked why the firefighters continue to volunteer if they have concerns they feel aren't being addressed, Anderson said he asked them the same question.

"They said people need the fire protection of their service," he said. "They take a lot of pride in what they do. They didn't want to leave the people of the RM of Springfield in a bind."

Anderson said the next step will be sitting down with the municipality to negotiate a first contract.

But Reeve Peter Skrupski said the RM's council is meeting next week to consider appealing the labour board's decision.

"We have asked for the assistance of the Association of Manitoba Municipalities, as this will have lasting ramifications throughout every single municipality and town in the province, from the largest to the smallest," Skrupski said in an email to the Free Press.

"All options will be reviewed with council and our solicitor in the coming days."

There are about 55 volunteer firefighters in Springfield and about 3,500 volunteer firefighters in Manitoba.

Skrupski said he could not comment further, but in documents filed with the labour board, the municipality said it was worried that if the firefighters were unionized, it would give them the right to strike — which urban firefighters don't have — because they are not full-time firefighters.

Springfield Fire Chief Dick Vlaming, who is on staff with the RM, said municipal officials are "scratching their heads" over a volunteer firefighting force being unionized.

"Everybody has the right to unionize, but I don't think they looked into it enough."

Vlaming said senior volunteer firefighters get paid $16 an hour for every call they respond to, with a minimum payment per call of two hours.

Vlaming wondered what the decision to unionize could mean to service-sharing agreements with neighbouring municipalities.

"Maybe we won't be able to do calls out to a border RM anymore," he said.

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