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Part-time firefighters win right to unionize
Kevin Bruch regularly puts his life on the line – and saves live and property – in his job as a Brooklyn Park firefighter. But because he only works part-time, he has not been eligible to unionize and makes a lower hourly wage than many workers in less dangerous jobs.
All that could change under a recent ruling from the Minnesota Bureau of Mediation Services, which for the first time decided that some part-time firefighters in the state are eligible to form unions.
The issue really hit home when Bruch saw a job posting for a part-time clerical worker at Brooklyn Park City Hall for $18.45 an hour. The position is represented by AFSCME and the compensation includes health insurance, vacation and sick pay.
As a non-union, part-time firefighter, Bruch earns $14.65 an hour and has no health insurance, vacation or other benefits.
“I’m not saying other city workers shouldn’t make that kind of money,” Bruch said. “But we [firefighters] get nothing.” So he started collected signatures to form a union with AFSCME.
The City of Brooklyn Park objected, citing a 1996 decision that barred part-time firefighters from unionizing. The case went before the Bureau of Mediation Services last year and the BMS, in its recent decision, ruled that firefighters working at least 14 hours a week for more than half the year do have the right to unionize.
About 30 firefighters in Brooklyn Park qualify under that definition. The sixth largest city in Minnesota, it depends almost entirely on part-time firefighters. The department provides both firefighting and medical services.
When he started with Brooklyn Park in 1998, the department handled about 900 calls per year, Bruch said. In 2011, it handled more than 7,000 calls.
“We are one of the busiest fire departments in the state,” he noted.
Despite their low pay and part-time status, the Brooklyn Park firefighters are required to stay current on their training and be certified as emergency medical technicians.
Two of the city’s fire stations are staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Bruch said. Another is staffed 15 hours every day.
Many other Minnesota communities also depend on poorly paid, part-time staffs, said Eric Lehto, organizing director for AFSCME Council 5. “In a nutshell, they’re getting full-time coverage at a part-time wage and benefits.”
Many of the firefighters juggle their part-time jobs with other positions. Bruch owns an auto repair business.
“I love the job” of firefighting, he said, and hopes to continue for many years.
Lehto said the union and part-time firefighters, in consultation with the BMS, will decide when to schedule a representation election.
© 2012 Workday Minnesota