As reported in the August issue of The New Falcon Herald, Cory Galicia, former firefighter with the Falcon Fire Protection District, said he believed members of the International Association of Fire Fighters had influenced the FFPD board’s decision to put Trent Harwig, Jeff Petersma and Galicia on paid leave April 24.
Galicia also said the action gave what he referred to as pro-union board members Mike Smaldino Sr. and Greg Heule a chance to move toward bringing the union to the district.
In the same article, Heule denied Galicia’s claims: “This investigation was in no way shape or form inspired by the union,” he said.
In a recent interview, Harwig, who has since been reinstated as chief, had this to say:
“I believe that there was some speculation that they (union members) were involved, but I don’t believe that personally. Some people will try to speculate because some board members are past union or have union ties. Some people are just anti-union.”
“This investigation that occurred recently was a department thing,” said Matt Seube, Falcon firefighter and president of the Falcon Professional Fire Fighter’s Association (Local 4502). “It was never a union thing. There was nobody ever specifically directed by the union to do anything that had to do with the investigation. We just don’t have the ability as the union to make demands to the chief for anything.
“The IAFF has clearly established that it was formed to support the firefighters and their safety and their working conditions,” he said. “The union, the Local – at this level within the FFPD, within the community – has done nothing but been a positive forward-progressing organization that has supported the fire department.”
Seube said being part of the union doesn’t benefit any one person or group of people any more than not being part of the union. “We pay our monthly dues toward the IAFF to keep our local number, and we’re not going to push anybody to be a part of the union at all,” he said.
Harwig said the union is able to offer life insurance benefits to firefighters that the district can’t offer them because the district is small.
“It’s frustrating because we have people, even on the board; and it’s only one or two maybe, but they’re concerned about this new Senate bill that Colorado has approved,” he said.
On June 5, Gov. John Hickenlooper signed Senate Bill 13-025, the Colorado Firefighter Safety Act, according to the website, http://cml.org. One of the key components of the bill addresses collective bargaining.
According to the bill listed at http://leg.state.co.us, “Collective bargaining for firefighters is a matter of statewide concern that affects the public safety and general welfare.”
The bill’s purpose: “Obligating public employers and employees organizations of firefighters that are certified or recognized as representing their firefighters to enter into collective bargaining with the willingness to resolve disputes relating to compensation, hours, and the terms and conditions of employment and to reduce to writing any agreements reached through negotiations.”
Seube said he thinks it’s this collective bargaining piece that makes non-union members of the district nervous. “We (Local union members) have no power under collective bargaining,” he said. “We don’t have the number of people that have to be a part of the department to even ask for collective bargaining. Even if we did, it’s a whole process to get collective bargaining, and we don’t have the resources, the want, the need – and we don’t have the ability.”
According to the bill, the collective bargaining piece only pertains to departments that have 24 or more paid firefighters, which excludes the FFPD.
Harwig said when the bill was initially passed through the state Senate and House of Representatives; it indicated that if a department had two or more paid firefighters who were members of a union, they could take advantage of the collective bargaining piece. “Initially, the bill was called the “Collective Bargaining Act” or something like that, but the governor vetoed it as it was written,” Harwig said. “Then, the name was changed and some of the requirements changed.”
Seube said he acknowledges that larger departments have used their unions to push for better wages and better working conditions through collective bargaining, but, he said, “We get what we get through the mill levy, and that’s it. We’re not going to go to the chief because we want an increase in pay; because we know it’s not going to be there unless it’s taken away from something else.
“People are afraid of unions that are pushing for pay increases that price out the department and force them to close stations.”
“You’d have less firefighters and the one you did have would make more money,” Harwig said. He said the department is already understaffed; and, with less money coming in for the next budget year because assessed home values have dropped; the department couldn’t handle an increase in wages.
The fear surrounding the union and its perceived power extends to board member elections, Seube said. “There is a political side to it (the union), but our political side has always been to support the chief and the department,” he said. “Whenever there is a board member seat available, we ask the chief who he would like for the board, who could help him. We’ve never gone out to get somebody. We’ve always let the chief know who might be interested along with whoever he thinks is good. Then, the union goes out and works for that person. They get votes, they inform, they educate and provide information to the community.
A quote by Harwig in the August article in The New Falcon Herald unwittingly caused some confusion: “Smaldino was targeted and asked to run for an open position when the board was filling one by some of our firefighter union members.”
Seube said the Local in no way targeted anyone to be on the board. “We merely initiated an opportunity for the fire chief to appoint a candidate through the Local’s effort,” he said.
“When it came to Smaldino, it was Chief Harwig who chose him. We brought him a candidate because there were only two (people) that had applied to be on the board. There were specific people on the department that had specified they didn’t want either one on the board. We had a choice. At that time, I was the vice president (of the Local) so I went to my president of the union, Dave Smith, and he gave me the go-ahead to talk to Harwig about initiating a search for anyone else. When I was introduced to him (Mike Smaldino Sr.), I asked what his background was and if he’d like to go see Harwig. Harwig’s comments were, ‘I think it would be good to have someone from District 5.’”
Seube said the bottom line is that some firefighters have chosen to be part of the union for a variety of reasons, including the ability to be involved in activities like motorcycle rides or events that support the community. He likened the union to the Shriners Club in that a large part of their focus is on community service.
“We do chili cook-offs for the Muscular Dystrophy Association,” he said. “We raised almost $600 for Tri-Lakes Cares. That money goes to people who actually need it.
“We (union members) just want the ideal working conditions to service the community in the safest manner that we are afforded. This union has only ever supported this department.”