By Leslie H. Dixon
OXFORD — The town of Oxford is challenging the Oxford Fire/Rescue Department’s attempt to unionize.
Teamsters Local 340 has petitioned the Maine Labor Relations Board to allow the local department to form a bargaining unit.
Interim Town Manager Becky Lippincott informed the Board of Selectmen at its Thursday, Feb. 16 meeting that the department was attempting to unionize. The Oxford Police Department voted to unionize last August and is now in the process of negotiating a collective bargaining contract.
Lorne Smith, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 340, said the town’s challenge will now be heard before the Maine Labor Relations Board, which will either accept or reject the arguments of the town.
The argument has been heard before, he said.
“The argument they are trying to make is the same argument that the town of Paris made and lost,” Smith told the Advertiser Democrat on Monday, Feb 21.
Lippincott declined to talk about the matter, saying the town has been advised by its legal counsel not to comment.
“We’re waiting for the town and the Labor Board to duke it out,” said Ed Marzano, bargaining agent for Teamsters Local 340.
Marzano said he believes that the fairly recent decision of the Labor Relations Board not to support the town of Paris in its contention that the Paris firefighters were on-call and not per diem employees should mean it would not consider Oxford’s same argument.
“Just because it walks like a duck, it doesn’t mean it quacks like a duck,” Marzano said.
Marzano said the process to unionize the Oxford Fire/Rescue Department began earlier this month when a minimum of 30 percent of the members signed cards with Local 340.
The action signifies the beginning of the process to join a union. At least 30 percent of the firefighters had to sign cards. That action allowed the Teamsters Union business agent to file a petition with the Labor Review Board for “unit determination” for all per diem firefighters, including the department captains.
The town then had 10 days – until Wednesday, Feb. 15 – to respond to that petition. Marzano said the town is challenging the petition on several counts, including whether the lieutenant and captains can be part of the bargaining unit.
Marzano said they are now waiting for direction from the Labor Relations Board, which could occur at any time.
Smith sees the town’s challenge as wasting taxpayers’ money.
“It always amazes me to see how these people in government will spend tens of thousands of dollars fighting a losing fight, then, when we bargain, they will say they have no money. I guess it depends on what they wish to spend it on,” Smith said.
Paris paid just under $20,000 to litigate the Paris firefighters union organization issues, according to Paris town bookkeeper Paula Locke.
If the Labor Review Board rejects Oxford’s argument, the firefighters will then hold an election to vote to unionize or not.
Unionizing a municipal department – including a fire department – is not uncommon and is often done to protect working conditions.
For Oxford, Smith said the firefighters are concerned about working conditions and scheduling, not wages, which is often the case.
Maine’s AFL-CIO defines a union as a group of workers who form an organization to gain respect on the job, better wages and benefits, more flexibility for work and family needs, a counterbalance to the unchecked power of employers, and voice in improving the quality of their products and services.
The town of Paris Fire Department, for example, unionized last year when morale among the firefighters declined after selectmen said they would cut $500,000 in municipal spending from the fiscal 2016 budget. At that time 18 Paris per diem firefighters voted to form a union with Teamsters Local 340.
The process for them began in December 2015, when the Teamsters filed a petition for unit determination with the Maine Labor Relations Board. The unit determination spells out what members of an organization will be in a bargaining unit.
In the case of Paris firefighters, for example, the per diem firefighters and fire captains were included, the fire chief was not. The unit determination also established the scheduling of a representation election.
The petition (unit determination) was granted by a hearing officer on June 3, 2016. On June 17, the town of Paris filed an appeal claiming the “per diem” firefighters were “on-call” employees and said the hearing officer’s decision to allow unionization should be overturned.
In defining a per diem versus on-call firefighter, the hearing officer used the threshold of “reasonable expectation of continued employment,” while the town argued the legal standard must be whether the per diem firefighters are employed on a “sporadic and intermittent” basis.
The hearing examiner concluded that the employees in the proposed bargaining unit were not “on-call employees” and the proposed unit was an appropriate bargaining unit as required by law.
Using its argument, the town said the per diem firefighters were “on-call” employees and therefore did not have the right to unionize.
If the hearing officer had come to the same conclusion as the town’s arguments (that the firefighters were on-call employees), they would have no statutory rights under the Municipal Public Employees Labor Relations Law and the petition for unit determination would have been dismissed.
The Labor Relations Board’s standard of review for bargaining unit determinations is well established. The board will overturn a hearing examiner’s rulings and determinations if they are “unlawful, unreasonable, or lacking in any rational factual basis.”
In looking at the town’s appeal of the hearing officers determination, the Labor Review Board concluded in its Oct. 17, 2016 decision that the town’s argument was without merit and that the per diem firefighters were not on-call employees but rather employees and entitled to be in a bargaining unit.
“We agree with the Hearing Examiner that the per diem firefighters share a clear and identifiable community of interest and that it is an appropriate unit,” the board wrote in its decision.
The board agreed it had never established a clear standard for determining on-call status but that it had been addressed by a hearing examiner five times in the past 45 years and only appealed to the board on three occasions.
The board wrote in its decision that the “absence of a clear standard led this Board and our hearing examiners to rely on certain phrases to describe the on-call status, or, more frequently, to describe what is not on-call.”
The standard, wrote the board, must be whether, given all of the relevant circumstances, the employee works only when called by the employer to fill a particular need that could not reasonably have been anticipated.
Like Paris firefighters, Oxford firefighters say they have been demoralized by events within the town and department. Former Fire Chief Wayne Jones unexpectedly resigned on Dec. 6, 2016, in a one-line memo to department members after he was handed a letter of no confidence signed by an unknown number of members.
Jones had served as chief since June 2015. The position is currently held by Acting Fire Chief David Heidrich, who has indicated he is not interested in the permanent job.
Last month, Lippincott told the Board of Selectmen that she was bringing in a motivational counselor to speak with Fire Department members, who requested it. Fire Department members made the decision to ask for help at a department meeting with her in December, following Jones’ sudden resignation. Lippincott said the move was being made to help “build up the morale” of firefighters.
According to information from the Maine AFL-CIO, once the union is formed, union members and the employer will negotiate a contract or “collective bargaining agreement” that covers all aspects of work – wages, health insurance, vacation or other benefits, how work is structured, how workers are disciplined, workplace safety standards, and other working conditions.
“These negotiations involve a lot of compromise, and at the end of successful negotiations, the union membership and the employer agree to the final product before it is implemented,” the website reads. “In simple terms, the contract is a just a very clear set of rules that the employer and the workers agree to follow.”
Some out of loop
Lippincott notified the Board of Selectmen at their meeting on Thursday, Feb. 16, that the firefighters intend to unionize, and that’s where some department members apparently found out about the action.
“I found out Thursday night,” Deputy Chief Paul Hewey said Monday, Feb. 20.
He, like others who attended the Feb. 16 Board of Selectmen meeting, heard Lippincott tell board members that she had received notification that the Fire/Rescue Department intended to unionize.
Hewey said he had not been informed, nor apparently had some others in the department who, he said, have questioned him about the news during the past week.
“It’s at the very beginning stages,” he said.
Hewey said he believed his position as deputy chief would be exempt from the union should it form.
In Paris, the fire chief and other administration are not part of the union.
Other area fire departments are also unionized. For example, Auburn firefighters belong to the Auburn Professional Fire Fighters Local 797 and Lewiston firefighters belong to the International Association of Firefighters Local 785.
Smith said the process to unionize could take four to six weeks but it is hard to give a precise timetable. The town of Paris took much longer because of the hearings and appeals.