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Lessons to learn from volunteers’ union battle

In the United States, the debate over whether volunteers are employees or not has occurred at many levels and been ruled on

About five years ago I wrote about the need for a volunteer firefighters’ union and now one has actually succeeded.

It’s a hot button issue every time something goes wrong in the management of a volunteer department, so much so that there is even a forum on about volunteer unions.

I’ve been lucky enough to have been in contact in the past few months with a few of the firefighters in Springfield, Canada, where the union push succeeded. I find the entire debate enlightening, and the volunteer fire service in the United States can learn from it.

In this case, as with many departments, the union battle started when a volunteer was fired. Although some may have trouble with the concept of “firing” a volunteer, it is acceptable under some circumstances.

In this case, it was more of a personality conflict, and the unfortunate thing is that without a union or some type of representation, it is difficult to fight or assure that due process has been followed.

Unfortunately, in the fire service we often have personality conflicts, and as happened in this case, things can escalate. The result was at first members handed in their pagers, then 70 percent of the 56 members decided to sign up for a union. This started quite a battle that now has the potential to dramatically change the volunteer fire services in Canada and possibly the United States.

The municipality, as expected, fought the application for a union, and it went to the Manitoba Labour Board (certificate no MLB-6800, case no. 107/10/RA). There were a variety of issues, but the key one was whether or not the volunteers were “employees.”

By the local rules, specifically Rule 28, the firefighters were not full-time or part- time employees. The board did find that although they are not full or part time employees, they are casual employees, under the direction of the municipality. Since they are employees, and had right to apply for becoming a union, they were accepted as one.

In the United States, the debate over whether volunteers are employees or not has occurred at many levels and been ruled on, including in the case of the FLSA “bright line test.” The interesting thing from the Manitoba board’s letter is the way they determined that the volunteers were employees.

In this case, it had to do with the municipality’s control over them including job descriptions, discipline, and requirements. The municipality required a minimum amount of responses, drills and meetings, which means they had control over the members.

The bylaws and SOPs of the department also specified the relationship with the municipality, solidifying the relationship. I am not an employment lawyer (or any other type of lawyer for that matter) but I do wonder if this same type of thinking would be followed in the United States.

Some people may see this as a win for the general cause of volunteer unions, and I suppose it is, but I wonder if it is the best path for the service. This incident has caused quite a bit of strife in their department, — legal battles, members threatening to resign, etc. — and I’m sure morale is at an all time low. No matter what the outcome, some members were not going to be happy. At the same time, the public still needs to be served.

In my mind, the learning opportunity here is for the management of every volunteer organization. Volunteers have rights, just as employees, and that means they should be managed like employees. This means they need due process for discipline, need to be heard, and need to know that the management has their best interests in mind.

It is a call to action to make sure our management knows how to manage. I am sure the membership in Springfield would have preferred the incident had never happened, but the handling of the situation forced their hand.

We train hard as firefighters, but we often don’t train hard as officers. If we do train as officers, it is usually on fireground tactics, not on employee relations. What about training our officers on performance reviews, feedback and management? Some might say that stuff is just for “businesses” but as the Manitoba case shows that volunteer departments are businesses.

Therefore, we have the responsibility to treat our volunteers as employees and our officers as management. Here’s a novel idea -- how about doing 360-degree feedback for the officers? Allow the members to give the officers feedback on their management skills both on and off the fireground to improve their growth.

There is a lot we can learn from the Manitoba case, but it is our choice what we learn. We can learn how to manage our employees (volunteers) or they can learn how to protect their rights as employees. It is up to your department to make that choice, but either way, your officers are going to have to change their practices. It is easier to do this by choice than when forced, but then again as fire departments we have to learn to be proactive rather than reactive for this to happen.

Volunteer fire departments face a unique set of challenges. Learn how to manage or serve on a volunteer department with Jason Zigmont, founder of, in his FireRescue1 exclusive column, ‘Volunteer Professionals.’