On a steamy Thursday morning, eight of the 10 Oak Bluffs firefighters and paramedics gathered at the Portuguese-American Club to take the oath that would make them charter members of IAFF Local 5137, the first International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) chapter on Martha’s Vineyard.
“This is a big step for us,” firefighter/paramedic Chris Flanders said as he set up tables and chairs in the P.A. Club hall. “It’s been discussed for years, but we decided together as a group several months ago. We all want change, we all want this department to start going in a more positive direction. We all want to work together to make this a better place, and we think unionizing will do that for us, and for the people who come after us. It’ll make it fair across the board, for every employee, not just for a chosen few.”
Mr. Flanders began as a volunteer with the department in 2012, and has been a full-time firefighter/paramedic for the past two years. He was a volunteer firefighter/EMT in Connecticut for three years before coming to the Island.
“Police have a union here, the teachers have a union, the highway department has a union; there are two unions in the town hall,” he said. “Seems pretty reasonable that firefighters should have a union as well.”
The IAFF has 304,000 members across the U.S. and Canada. There are eight IAFF districts in Massachusetts. The union was established in 1918, and later was assimilated into the AFL-CIO.
“Now I can say District Eight represent the Cape, South Coast, and Islands, plural, “Jay Colbert, IAFF 3rd district vice president, said at the swearing-in ceremony. The Nantucket Fire Department has been in the IAFF since 1976, according to the department’s Facebook page.
Mr. Colbert, a Somerville Fire Department lieutenant with a linebacker’s build and a booming baritone, told the assembled that the initiation was only a first step to improving the OBFD, and that public support would be crucial.
“When you fulfill your duties to the public with honor, and you wear the uniform well, you will find that the undertakings of your union will be sympathetically received by the public, and you will need public support,” he said. “The IAFF is an organization built to protect the protectors. You are here to protect the people of Oak Bluffs, we are here to protect you, your working conditions and your safety … I know we’ve got some challenges ahead with people who may be resistant to this organization, but that can be overcome.”
In addition to supporting its members with workplace issues, Mr. Colbert said the IAFF also raises college scholarship money for members’ children, and secures retirement benefits and medical care for members when needed. “Firefighters are two and a half times more likely to develop cancer than the general population,” he said. “This disease is ravaging our ranks.” Mr. Colbert said the townspeople of Oak Bluffs will also benefit from unionization. “Membership in the IAFF opens up a wide range of training opportunities that you don’t currently have,” he said.
Bob McCarthy, IAFF district field service representative and president emeritus of the Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts, said the IAFF is coming to Martha’s Vineyard “with an open hand, not a closed fist.”
“I don’t want this perceived as union boys from Boston coming in and causing trouble. That is not our objective,” he said. “They’re used to dealing with unions in Oak Bluffs, and that’s good. We’re not here to upset the apple cart, but to make things better for the people they depend on. We don’t want our members worrying about things they shouldn’t have to worry about. That’s when accidents happen.”
Mr. McCarthy will be the lead IAFF bargaining agent with Oak Bluffs. “We’re going to have some bumps along the way. I don’t think the town is going to voluntarily recognize you at this point, but I think they will in time. I’ve been in contact with the town’s attorney, who I’ve done business with over the years, and is one of the best management/labor attorneys in the business,” he said, referring to Oak Bluffs town labor counsel Jack Collins.
Speaking to The Times on Friday, Mr. Collins said he’s negotiated many contracts with Mr. McCarthy over the years. “We fight like cats and dogs at the table, but we know how to get things done,” he said.
But Mr. Collins said that negotiation will only take place if the town recognizes the union. “All the union did was file a request that we recognize them, so we’re going through the process of deciding whether we’re going to do that, and how we might do it,” he said. “I think the union’s position is that they’d like to have EMTs and at least one lieutenant be in the union, and that’s going to be an issue. We usually recommend the towns keep supervisors separate from the rank and file. It doesn’t mean it has to be a big issue, but it’s an issue. These are some of the best-paid EMT’s in the state, so I’m sure the town’s wondering what they’re looking for that they already aren’t giving them. We’ll see.”
Starting salary for an Oak Bluffs paramedic with Firefighter 1 certification is $31.26 per hour. With Firefighter 2 certification or Critical Care Training, starting pay is $32.20 per hour. The average Firefighter/Paramedic salary in Massachusetts is approximately $23.37 per hour, which is 44 percent above the national average, according to indeed.com.
The firefighter/paramedics who spoke to The Times after the swearing-in said flagging workplace morale, the desire for improved training, and issues with the leadership of Chief John Rose were the impetus for unionizing. None of them mentioned money.
Mr. Collins said town administrator Robert Whritenour, Chief John Rose, and the selectmen would have input on whether to recognize the union.
“Legally it’s between the board of selectmen and the union,” he said. “I would think the town administrator will take some input from me and the chief and make a recommendation to the selectmen.”
On Tuesday, Mr. Whritenour confirmed that the town has received a letter from the IAFF indicating that the firefighter/paramedics intend to unionize. “Personally, I don’t have any strong feelings about it one way or another,” he said. “Obviously Massachusetts law gives employee groups the right to form unions if they like, and we’ll work with them … Our town has taken pretty extraordinary measures to ensure the fair treatment for all of our employees, whether they be union or nonunion.”
Mr. Whritenour said he doesn’t see the campaign to unionize as a campaign against Chief Rose. “There’s been a lot of turnover, and we’re continually trying to get the right team in there,” he said. “I don’t see a big list of grievances or issues like that. There’s been a lot of attention to work rules and procedures around the EMTs. There’s a good amount of structure we’ve put in place. If they think there’s additional protections with the union, we’ll certainly explore that.”
In an email to The Times, a spokesperson for Senator Julian Cyr wrote, “The Senator congratulates first responders in Oak Bluffs for their decision to join the IAFF. He looks forward to the opportunity to work in conjunction with firefighters and paramedics on Island and across the Commonwealth.”
State Rep. Dylan Fernandes also endorsed the formation of IAFF Local 5137. “Public workers who put their life on the line to protect the rest of us deserve the utmost protection and representation,” he wrote in an email to The Times. “I’ve worked with the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts to advance legislation enhancing labor representation in healthcare benefit negotiations. Congratulations to the Oak Bluffs firefighters and paramedics, I hope it’s the start of a productive working relationship that reflects everyone’s best interests.”