Hennepin County Medical Center - Local 977

Part-Time Firefighters Make Union History

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Dan Concha, of Roseville Local 2911: “It’s uncharted territory, but we want to do this process the right way.”

Firefighters in Brooklyn Park and Roseville have become the first part-time crews in Minnesota to unionize.

The firefighters are expanding union rights. They are expanding recognition and parity for part-time “duty crews,” a staffing model that is increasingly common in suburbs and small cities.

Their organizing is also building unprecedented levels of cooperation between AFSCME and the International Association of Fire Fighters, which represents 300,000 full-time firefighters nationwide. Finally, the unique situation of part-time crews is bringing new depth and meaning to the legendary bond that firefighters share – and to the definition of union solidarity itself.

Far more than ‘volunteers’

In Minnesota’s first-ever union election among part-time firefighters, 46 Brooklyn Park firefighters joined AFSCME in February. A few weeks earlier, 22 colleagues in Roseville became the first part-time firefighters to join AFSCME. Roseville voluntarily recognized the union after a vast majority of eligible crew members delivered cards seeking collective bargaining.

Firefighters have a variety of reasons they want a union, according to Steve Schmidt in Brooklyn Park and Dan Concha in Roseville. But disparities in how cities treat firefighters stand out.

In many ways, Roseville treats its firefighters well, Concha says. There’s a new state-of-the-art fire station. There’s top-notch training. Residents routinely send thank-you letters or drop off plates of cookies to show their appreciation.

But at a fundamental level, “firefighters are not treated the same as other part-time employees,” Concha says. “There’s no sick pay, no paid holidays, no paid vacation.” In fact, in some city documents, firefighters are listed as “volunteers.”

“We’re not volunteers anymore,” says Brooklyn Park’s Schmidt. “We’re real employees in a real department. But we have a different set of working rules, a different working structure, a different scheduling structure than almost everybody else.”

The reality is, part-time firefighters do jobs in which their lives can be on the line on any given day. Their pay and benefits don’t reflect that. “It’s a far more dangerous job than the finance department,” Schmidt says. “They’re not running into burning buildings. They’re not standing out on a freeway at a vehicle accident. They’re not going into hazardous materials incidents.”

A union, Concha says, is part of advancing the professionalism that modern fire crews require. “We want to be able to advocate more effectively for the department. We want to make the department better.”

Full-time coverage with part-time crews

Brooklyn Park and Roseville use the “duty crew” model of staffing. This staffing can provide full-time coverage to a city without full-time crews. Firefighters work regular shifts, but usually only once or twice a week. There is always a crew on duty at a station to handle fire, rescue, and emergency medical calls in the city.

It’s a big difference from volunteer or paid on-call crews that smaller communities traditionally relied upon. Those models don’t work well today, Schmidt says, because fewer individuals have the flexibility in their personal and work lives, and fewer employers will let their workers leave at a moment’s notice to respond to an emergency.

AFSCME, IAFF cooperate

Brooklyn Park firefighters have talked on and off for years about unionizing, Schmidt says. They turned to AFSCME because the International Association of Fire Fighters’ constitution does not allow that union to represent part-timers. In Minnesota and nationally, Schmidt points out, the part-time fire service far outnumbers full-time crews.

But what’s happened in Brooklyn Park and Roseville showed AFSCME and IAFF officials the potential of working cooperatively to bring more firefighters into unions. They have agreed to organize departments together, with IAFF representing full-time firefighters, and AFSCME representing part-timers.

“It’s pretty awesome, when you think about it,” Schmidt says. “This has some real regional and national implications.”

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