Leaders Tout Teamwork in Labor Relations

ATLANTA -- When it comes to labor issues, chiefs and union firefighters ought to be on the same team rather than butting heads. That was the message delivered to an audience at the International Association of Fire Chiefs' Fire-Rescue International conference.

Representing management was Steve Westermann, chief of the Central Jackson (Blue Spring, Mo.) Fire Protection District and past president of the IAFC.

Representing union firefighters was Tom Hanify, president of the Professional Firefighter Union of Indiana, who is also a member of the Indianapolis Fire Department.

The economy has put a strain on labor and management relationships, but they ought not to create mortal enemies, both Westermann and Hanify said.

"If there's any enemy at all, it's City Hall," Hanify said. "We need to work together to make us stronger."

Westermann said communities simply don't have the money any longer and the effects of the economic downturn on labor in cities and towns "is not going to be pretty."

The best way to steel against losing members or having benefits reduced is to have labor and management work together with a unified cause, the two said.

"We all care about the safety of our people," Hanify said. "The only difference is roles and responsibilities... But there's a big overlap."

Where those overlaps occur, there are opportunities for "shared power" between labor and management, Westermann said.

"But, when you add that fifth bugle, the chief still has the final say," Westermann said. "That's just the way the system is designed."

That, however, doesn't mean the chief has to rule with an iron fist, nor does the union have to be intractable about demands.

Westermann said he had to learn not to take "too much authority" and become too demanding of the union members, and has since learned to balance being a leader with being a manager.

Involving union members with their own fates most always yields better results, Hanify said.

"For example, I hate brownouts and I would fight against them," Hanify said. "But, what are the options?" He said good union members will help develop solutions to obvious problems.

On the flip side, a good chief will be willing to listen and to work through the issues, Westermann said.

"I don't give anything away," Westermann said. "I'll agree with ideas that are good for the department."

Westermann said his department has an annual budget of about $15 million and in the next budget cycle he's going to have to cut $1 million, a task that isn't going to be easy.

"It boils down to open and honest communications," Westermann said. "If you don't have that, you've got to work on it."

From the union members’ and leaders’ perspective, it's all about making partnerships and relationships.

Union leaders should make the time to have coffee, or have a chat with their chiefs regularly, at least once a week and more often if it's necessary, Hanify said, adding that it's a "best practice" when it comes to labor relations.

"We're dealing with peoples' lives here," Hanify said. "I believe [union leaders] have a moral and fiduciary responsibility to talk with their chiefs."

Westermann said shared power is the best way to work in a fire department.

"It makes it so much nicer to go to work," he said. "It takes an enormous amount of work, but it's worth it."