An investigation into unfair labor practices at the Oak Bluffs EMS/Fire Department by the Department of Labor Relations (DLR) has found probable cause for alleged violations in complaints filed by the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) against the Town.
In a nine-page opinion issued on Wednesday, DLR investigating attorney Kendrah Davis found probable cause for 11 alleged violations, while dismissing five others. The charges encompass a wide range of actions, alleging some form of retaliation for the full-time firefighter/paramedics voting to unionize this summer.
According to a Nov. 29 letter from DLR acting director Edward Srednicki to the town, the matter has been classified as a Category 1 case for an expedited hearing, and the town has 10 days to respond.
“This complaint was filed against the town, the department, and particularly the chief, because he’s the source of 90 percent of the issues,” IAFF attorney James Hykel told The Times. “We’re mostly happy with the result. We think this captures the essence of the problems, which is once the union came in, it became a concerted attack. An 11-count complaint is unusual. We wish it was 15, but we’ll take 11 and keep going.”
Oak Bluffs labor counsel Jack Collins was also pleased with the decision. “There’s nothing earthshattering here, it’s not a big surprise,” he said. “I think the town is pleased that so many charges were dismissed as being totally unfounded. That doesn’t happen very often. We’re pretty happy with that.”
Mr. Hykel said one of the dismissed allegations was not in the complaint.
“We didn’t allege union members weren’t allowed to go to a selectmen’s meeting,” he said. “I think there was some confusion as to what this allegation was. I don’t think any of the union leadership was prevented from going. Either way, we hadn’t filed a charge on that.”
He said another dismissed allegation will go before the DLR again because the complaint was filed before the board of selectmen voted on Oct. 24 to eliminate the firefighting duties of full-time paramedics. “The complaint was already filed, and we weren’t allowed to amend it after the selectmen’s vote because the record was closed,” he said. “We filed a new complaint, which is now on for in-person investigation in January.”
Mr. Hykel said the hearings before the DLR in October were unusually lengthy.
“For this complaint we were [at the DLR] for two full days presenting evidence because of the volume of charges,” he said. “Usually it’s a single-count charge, and we’re in and out in an hour.”
Speaking to The Times on Wednesday, Chief John Rose strongly refuted the allegations. “We don’t have any objections to the union. I stand firm that it’s not about being anti-union,” he said. “I believe if it’s done right, it can help the department with more defined job descriptions.”
One count alleges that Chief Rose stated at a staff meeting in August that the union would “never set foot in the station,” and that selectmen were exploring ways to keep the union out.
“It’s absolutely not the case,” he said. “Myself and the administration are not against the union. Our main goal is to bring the best product to the community.”
Other charges include retaliation against former paramedic and union local secretary Kevin Kilduff after he was placed on extended administrative leave after completing an employee assistance program (EAP), and that the town failed to bargain with the union in good faith about the matter. Several policy changes instituted by Chief Rose since employees voted to unionize — deducting pay if employees failed to work until the top or bottom of the hour, forbidding employees to leave the station for more than 30 minutes without authorization, forbidding on-duty personnel from giving off-Island employees rides to and from the ferry — were cited.
The DLR attorney also found probable cause that the town “interfered with, restrained, and coerced” the union bargaining unit because Chief Rose stated at a staff meeting that the IAFF “would never set foot in the department,” and at the same meeting, he stated some selectmen were exploring how to get rid of the union and the bargaining unit.
The town also did not respond to union requests for information about the decision to install security cameras inside the fire station, according to the ruling.
The DLR investigation found probable cause of retaliation in a Sept. 5 memo in which Chief Rose stated he’d recently discovered a state law that requires department employees to live within 15 miles of the town and would take “prompt action” on it; a Sept. 28 email which assigned union members lockers in the basement; and an action denying paramedic Chris Flanders union representation at an August investigatory interview with Chief Rose.
Mr. Collins said the ruling doesn’t mean the LRB has found merit to the charges, rather, it means they have a right to have a hearing.
“Everybody has their right to the day in court,” he said. “I think the town is looking forward to having a hearing. I expect it to be fine for the town.”
Mr. Collins said the length of the October hearings was due to the voluminous charges filed by the IAFF. “Once or twice a week they would threaten charges against us,” he said. “It became a cottage industry for them. They took a shotgun approach; let’s charge them with everything, and they’ll roll over and play dead. The town’s not going to do that.”
Mr. Collins stated categorically that Chief Rose didn’t say the union would never be part of the department or that selectmen were looking to block the union.
“We have a 100 percent different opinion on that,” he said. “We had an investigation, we spoke to people who were there, we took a look at the minutes, it’s just not true. The chief has never expressed any anti-union animus privately or publicly. It just never happened. He’s been saying all along that the union could be a good thing for us. He’s talked to other department heads who said it can work out fine once you know the ropes.”
Mr. Collins said Chief Rose is in a difficult position with call firefighters who are allegedly very unhappy with the full-time firefighter/paramedics: “Clearly the chief is trying to find a way to make peace all around, and when you do that, sometimes people on either side say you’re not being strong enough.”
Selectmen have no objection to a union, Mr. Collins said.
“Right now the union is definitely afraid they’ve bit off more than they can chew,” he said. “They’ve decided, ‘We’re going to keep these people as firefighters until the end of time,’ and the town has every right to say, ‘We’re not going to use you as firefighters anymore.’ The only avenue the union has is to charge the town of being anti-union, and put a spin on whatever the chief does. That’s their job.”
The town has spent $48,432 in legal fees in EMS/Fire Department negotiations and proceedings since September. The union had not responded with how much it has spent as of press time.