St. Petersburg Times

County fire rescue crews to form union
A majority of the rank-and-file workers vote to form the union, although its interim leader says there is no single pressing issue.
By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET, Times Staff Writer
Published May 21, 2005
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LAND O'LAKES - Looking to secure better benefits through collective bargaining, a majority of Pasco County's fire rescue crews voted this week to unionize.

The rank-and-file workers voted 159-136 to form the Local 4420 of the International Association of Fire Fighters. About 340 employees are eligible to join the union, although some of them chose not to vote in the elections Thursday and Friday.

Having a union "allows us the opportunity to speak on our own behalf and represent ourselves," said Ralph Grant, a driver engineer/paramedic who is serving as interim president of the local chapter.

When the talk of unionizing arose last year, some crews cited rising health insurance premiums and the need for more equipment and crews. But Grant said Friday that there is no single pressing issue.

"A lot of people think just because you go to a union, you have to be mad about something," he said. "That isn't always the case. Sometimes there is something more to it than that."

He said part of the appeal is belonging to the IAFF, an organization that provides car insurance, homeowners insurance, mortgages and other programs for its members. Membership is $30 a month.

Union and nonunion members will get the same benefits negotiated by the Local 4420. But they will have different processes for filing grievances with their supervisors, as union members can seek binding arbitration through an independent third party.

The crews cannot go on strike.

Dan Johnson, the assistant county administrator who oversees fire rescue, declined to comment about the election Friday. But in an interview last year, he said the crews have secured better benefits since the previous firefighters union folded in 1998.

"I think they realize there is a cost to them for unionizing," Johnson said in December, "and they have actually been able to obtain more benefits and a better working atmosphere without a union because we've been working together as a group."

Grant said Friday that he hopes to keep the cooperative relationship.

"We're not looking to butt heads with county administration," he said. "We're really hoping to establish a good working relationship with them."

[Last modified May 21, 2005, 01:03:17]