Two divisions of South King Fire and Rescue have filed representation petitions to join the IAFF Local 2024 union to solidify their conditions of work amid upcoming changes in administration.
The first petition was filed for fleet and mechanics, which the Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC) certified on April 24. This division of the department comprises all full-time and regular part-time apparatus mechanics, fire plans examiners and facilities maintenance employees.
The second petition, filed on behalf of the department’s four battalion chiefs, is still pending approval by PERC.
South King’s four battalion chiefs include Joel Barrett, Eric Suckoll, Aaron Weeks and former Local 2024 president Ryan Herrera.
The petitions requested “recognition to be certified as the representative of employees currently unrepresented,” according to the petition documents.
“They really just want to capture their hours, wages and benefits, and feel more secure in their positions through a collective bargaining agreement,” said Ricky Walsh, the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) 7th District vice president.
Codifying these terms of employment into a collective bargaining agreement is for “their own security,” Walsh said.
“For the entire unit, we’ve brought more people into the house of labor, into Local 2024, and I think for the individuals that are actually in this particular unit, it gives them some structure, and some stability and actually some confidence in their futures,” Walsh said of the certified fleet and facilities decision.
The next step in the process for the fleet and mechanics division will be for Local 2024 President Layne Winter to join the employer to schedule bargaining dates and hammer out a contract, Walsh said.
SKFR’s fleet and facilities division was formerly organized under Local 302, an operating engineers union, in the ‘90s. After decertifying in the late ‘90s, the division is now organized under Local 2024.
The certification process of the petitions generally takes 30 days. With the battalion chiefs petition filed on April 1, a decision should be made in the near future, Walsh said.
“It allows [the department] to budget more effectively, plan out their staffing needs, and I think it’s a good deal for everybody,” Walsh said. “I think that all human beings should be able to sit down with their employer and talk about their wages, hours and conditions of employment without feeling … intimidated by the employer.”
SKFR is the only group of battalion chiefs in Washington state that are not organized, both Walsh and SKFR fire Chief Dr. Allen Church confirmed. South King’s battalion chiefs currently reside under the fire chief’s administration.
The change of longtime administration and “uncertainty” about new administration in these positions could be a driving factor for this union representation jump, Walsh said.
Requests for representation closely follow the recent election of a new fire chief for the first time in nearly two decades, as Church announced his retirement will be Dec. 31, 2019.
Current Assistant Chief Vic Pennington was offered the position of fire chief on Feb. 26. As assistant chief, Pennington has directly worked with Church for the last two years.
Church said the “time has probably come,” and “change is here now,” regarding the timeliness of the representation petitions.
This transition “creates angst typically and I’m sure that people just want to make sure that the benefits they have are put to paper instead of not,” Church said.
Church joined South King Fire and Rescue in 1978 and has been fire chief since 2000.
When Pennington becomes fire chief on Jan. 1, 2020, Deputy Chief Kevin Crossen will become chief of operations.
Department-wise, Church said with the new representation “things will be more black and white.”
“Everything is pretty well black and white with [the firefighters] so this will just clarify things for the fleet and facilities folks. It’s not a bad thing,” Church said.
South King has 100% of firefighter participation in the Local 2024. Upon approval of the battalion chiefs petition, there will be no obvious changes in day-to-day services or operations; the changes will be more evident at the administrative level, Church said.
“It’ll clarify some things for the battalion chiefs in writing … they may not be as involved in confidential matters as other members of my admin team have been.”
While the process of promotion for lieutenants and captains is outlined in their union contracts, battalion chiefs are appointed at the sole discretion of the fire chief, Church said.
“We go through a process but at the end of the day, the fire chief has that ability to choose who he or she feels is best suited to be a battalion chief.”
Strong, confident leaders with the ability to demonstrate followership are key traits Church said he has looked for in his battalion chief appointments.
As for Pennington’s transition into fire chief, Church said he hopes Pennington maintains the department’s established relationship with labor.
“It’s a very collaborative relationship. We work together through challenges to make sure they don’t become issues or problems,” he said. “I think with his temperament, he’ll be able to do that.”
The fire service is a strong brother and sisterhood of individuals that both work together and put their lives on the line for one another, Church said, and to be a part of a cohesive group where they have each other’s back is “a good thing.”