Union picks up steam at Alberta fire halls

Health and safety need attention as well as wages and pensions
By Danielle Harder
|Canadian Labour Reporter|Last Updated: 12/09/2010

Just a year after the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) formed its first local in Alberta in almost 30 years, it has added four others. In the past year, full-time firefighters in Canmore, Leduc, Airdrie, Rockyview and, most recently, Okotokos have all voted to join the IAFF.

Firefighters in Canmore started the trend in the fall of 2009. A drive five years earlier in the town of Airdrie, northeast of Calgary, failed (though the union was successful earlier this year). Before that, the last firefighters to unionize in Alberta were in Spruce Grove, just outside Edmonton, back in 1982.

“Firefighters are wanting to be part of the greater group,” said Lorne West, the IAFF’s representative in Western Canada. He said Alberta’s exponential population growth over the past decade or so has put tremendous strain on fire departments.

While large city fire halls have been unionized for some time, West said it has taken longer to organize in smaller communities. Many towns have a strong history of volunteer firefighting and have been reluctant to spend more to create a professional full-time fire department, especially a unionized one.

“The concept of volunteer fire departments grew for a good reason,” he said. “It grows from neighbours helping neighbours. But firefighting has changed.”

West said one of the biggest drivers for many firefighters joining the IAFF is health and safety. He said there are still fire halls in Alberta where firefighters share gear, even boots.

“One chief sent out a memo with boot spray,” said West. “He told them to spray the inside of their boots when they were finished so the next guy could use them.”

West said there has been some pushback in some communities, particularly when politicians who are seeing firefighting budgets increase from two to three per cent of their overall budget to 10 to 12 per cent.

“It’s a matter of choosing a priority,” he said. “Would you rather have firefighters on a truck, or flowers in boxes on boulevards?”

West, who started as a firefighter in the 1970s, said the role of the IAFF has changed over that time, making it a better sell to both firefighters and the municipalities who pay their salaries. For example, the IAFF receives money from federal and provincial governments for hazardous materials training. Local firefighters then pass on that knowledge locally by training police, paramedics, etc.

However, he said unionizing firefighters is also about better benefits, pensions and pay. He would like to see firefighters in Alberta gain wage increases that would put them in line with firefighters in Ontario, who are among the best paid in Canada. Salaries for firefighters in Okotoks, for example, range from about $63,000 to $69,000. Their colleagues in Ontario earn about $78,000 a year.

However, West said it is a challenge in many Alberta communities where conservative politicians are “ideologically opposed to unions and proud of it, and want draconian contract language” in collective agreements. He said organizing in B.C. has been somewhat easier; 20 new locals have joined the IAFF over the same time period.

There has been some debate across Canada over whether or not volunteer, part-time or paid-on-call firefighters should also be represented by the IAFF. West said the union’s constitution allows representation only to full-time firefighters, and that’s unlikely to change.

“But by being a neighbour we make it better for them,” he said.

Over the past year, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) has established locals in several parts of Ontario and rural Manitoba dedicated to paid-on-call firefighters.

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