Updated May 31 11:45 am
A state labor panel will hear the ongoing dispute between the town of Oak Bluffs and the town’s Fire Department union, International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) 5137, next week, including allegations of retaliation and unfair labor practices stemming from public comments made about individual firefighters by town leaders.
The dispute began back in November, when the Department of Labor Relations issued a complaint itemizing 11 violations concerning “union retaliation, failure to bargain, and intimidating employees,” according to a statement from Pyle Rome Ehrenberg PC, the Boston-based labor and employment law office representing the fire department. A separate complaint of two violations was also filed, for a total of 13 to be considered at the hearing.
The hearings will be held on June 6, 7, and 8, all at 10 am in Boston.
Last Thursday, the Commonwealth Employment Relations Board (CERB) issued another seven counts against the town, bringing the total to 20 since the fire department filed to join the IAFF, a labor union representing firefighters and EMS personnel, last July.
The latest seven counts against the town, provided by Pyle Rome, include Oak Bluffs Fire Chief John Rose’s decision to assign himself a locker in the women’s locker room, the town’s release of private information to the media about firefighters who complained about the chief, and comments made by the town administrator and the board of selectmen referring to union supporters as “cowards who hide behind the press.” Other issues include the town’s request to its personnel board to remove firefighting duties from EMS personnel, Chief Rose’s exclusion of a union supporter from officer meetings, the town’s direct dealing with a firefighter about employment terms while refusing to discuss it with the union, and Chief Rose’s implementation of new rules for time off and breaks.
On May 23, a day before the newest round of complaints were issued, Chief Rose sent out a memo, provided by Rich Michelson, an EMT, to all department members detailing the division of the fire department and EMS into two separate departments, prohibiting EMS personnel to respond as firefighters to fire calls. The split of the department came after a unanimous vote by town selectmen last October.
“While I was hopeful that the experiment would have proven more successful, it has become clear, after a couple of years of effort, that trying to cross-train EMT paramedics as firefighters has not resulted in the additional response capability we had envisioned. And in all honesty, the internal animosity this model has produced, especially when off-Island staff members sometimes appear to be unable or unwilling to attend trainings or respond to fire calls, was something none of us anticipated,” Chief Rose wrote in the memo.
Wednesday morning, EMS Lt. Mike Desrosiers, treasurer for IAFF Local 5137, along with Thomas Lambert, Dick Velez, and Lindsay Hopkins, sent a memo to union members rebutting Chief Rose, detailing EMS personnel’s “zero intention” of letting go of their firefighting duties. The memo says Chief Rose’s decision to remove firefighting duties from EMS personnel was made out of spite, and that the decision to split the department was never in consideration before the union formed.
Speaking to union members in the memo, Desrosiers writes, “What this says to us is that Chief Rose does not respect any of us, and is risking the health and safety of Oak Bluffs’ citizens. He’d rather Oak Bluffs residents and visitors sit in a burning building, waiting for someone to leave their job and get to the station, than let you help. He does not want to train you better, institute clearer work rules, or fix the department. He would rather mock and belittle you in the same memo that he apologizes to the call firefighters for not retaliating against you sooner.”
Desrosiers also told the Times that at the last negotiation session between the town and the union on May 11, town labor counsel Jack Collins stuck his tongue out at the union and told them it didn’t matter if the town lost on all 13 counts. When asked by The Times if either accusation was true, Collins denied both of them. He said he asked the union if members wanted to negotiate, to which they replied no, and he left the meeting.
Oak Bluffs town administrator Robert Whritenour said the EMS personnel also performing firefighting duties didn’t work because the personnel were too busy, and were not responding to calls.
In 2017, the town spent $70,800 in legal fees to Collins, and this year, the town spent $35,808 to Collins. Whritenour told the Times these fees were primarily for negotiations and required legal responses concerning IAFF 5137.
Updated to correct Rich Michelson as a current EMT, not former.