It’s Still Not about the Money

by Ian DeWaard on July 9, 2013

This July marks the tenth anniversary since the signing of the first collective agreement between CLAC’s member firefighters and the city of Hamilton, Ontario. An anniversary gives us a chance to reflect on past experiences and revisit some highlights.

From 1998 to 2001, the provincial government restructured many of the municipal boundaries in Ontario, causing smaller, outlying rural townships and regional governments to amalgamate with larger urban centres. Volunteer fire departments were enveloped by large corporate municipalities, most of which had never dealt with the volunteers, or the unique culture that forms in a volunteer hall. Seeking a solution to the frustration and confusion caused by the new relationship, volunteers in Hamilton, Belleville, Quinte West, Midland, and now Sudbury called on CLAC for assistance.

In the beginning, the cities of Hamilton and Quinte West wrongly reclassified our members as part-time workers, resulting in increased taxes being deducted from their honorariums and the loss of WSIB coverage for injuries on the fire ground. Ultimately, CLAC succeeded in undoing these decisions, but undoing what had been done was no small effort.

During this time, Ontario was losing nearly 4,000 volunteer firefighters who were two hatters—full-time firefighters who also served as volunteers in their home community. CLAC participated in the efforts to turn Bill 30—The Volunteer Firefighter Employment Protection Act—into law.

The bill was designed to prevent the Ontario Professional Firefighters Association from forcing its members from resigning their volunteer positions, upon threat of losing their full-time job and livelihood. While Bill 30 ultimately failed, the public awareness for the invaluable role that volunteers serve in our communities was greatly enhanced.

In Sudbury, where negotiations for a first agreement are getting underway, I am again reminded of the real success achieved by volunteers who have elected to join CLAC—the ability to be heard by city council and management. Collective bargaining creates a powerful forum through which volunteers can give meaningful input on matters of equipment purchase, operational procedures, and recruitment and retention challenges.

A quick perusal of any of our volunteer collective agreements will show that volunteers have had significant success in securing better SCBA, training, and PPE; in helping to craft a higher standard of training and hiring; and in strategies to keep volunteer firefighters engaged in the service for the long term.

Several years after inking our first agreement with Hamilton, a senior deputy chief remarked quietly that if he had known how much easier it would be to understand and manage the needs of volunteers with a union in place, the city would likely not have pushed back so hard when volunteers first attempted to become unionized. Unfortunately, in the beginning, it hadn’t occurred to city council to count on volunteers to generate and drive solutions to suit the unique challenges of managing a volunteer fire department.

As I’ve heard you say more often than I can count, this job’s not about the money. You do this because it’s something of worth, something that allows you to give back to your community, a place where you can save a life.

For ten years, it has been a privilege to serve alongside you—the men and women (and your families) who so valiantly give of your time to make your communities a better, safer place.

Happy anniversary.

Ian DeWaard is CLAC’s Cambridge/Kitchener/Waterloo director.

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