Union a step closer, membership still the issue

By David Ball dball@keynoter.com
Posted-Wednesday, July 20, 2005 10:14 AM EDT Email this story

Marathon Fire Rescue firefighters' attempt to unionize are a step closer, as a hearing officer from the state Public Employees Relations Committee gave has given a recommended order stating which fire personnel should make up the union's bargaining unit.

The group of firefighters and the city have filed responses to the order, legally called "exceptions," and a final order from PERC, which issued its order June 24, could come at any day.

The preliminary order came after a public hearing May 13, when Fire Rescue and city officials testified on who should be included in the union's bargaining unit.

According to state statue, a union has the power to bargain with its employer, in this case the city, over wages and other terms of employment, including pensions and health benefits.

The firefighters, who voted to unionize last year and were recognized by the International Association of Firefighters but not the city, wanted the union to include all full-time firefighters, EMTs, paramedics, lieutenants and captains, but not volunteers.

The city wanted the union to include volunteers, who are actually paid minimal wages, but not captains, which have some administrative duties over subordinate firefighters.

According to Walter Dix, who represents the Marathon firefighters through the IAF, the PERC order concludes that full-time firefighters, EMTs and paramedics - currently about 13 employees - be included in the union, but not captains or volunteers.

"We filed an exception that captains should still be in the unit," Dix said. "If unsuccessful, we plan to petition PERC for a separate bargaining unit for the captains. We have the same type of arrangement for the city of Key Biscayne."

City Attorney John Herin was unable to outline the city's exceptions, but Dix said the 26-page document lists the same grievances the city had during the hearing, including the exclusion of volunteers.

Once the bargaining unit is set, those firefighters will then vote to form the union, which would be the Professional Firefighters of Marathon Local 4396.

Capt. Joe Forcine, president of the currently unrecognized union, said it is critical that he and the two other captains are included in the union.

"I am put in harm's way just like every other firefighter, and if I were killed in the line of duty, my life insurance policy would pay my family $15,000," Forcine said. "As a comparison, the city manager receives $150,000, and he is never in harm's way. We just want what's adequate."

Actually, Puto has not elected to have city life insurance. If he did, it would equal his $100,000 salary.

Marathon Fire Rescue has 16 full-time employees about 35 volunteers.