What do you get when you put more than 50 firefighters in a room at the Gold Rush Inn? A fiery speech from their union leader.
South of the border, the situation is dire, said Harold Schaitberger, general president of the International Association of Firefighters.
There are those who want to “turn back the clock,” and bring back the “Gilded Age,” said Schaitberger, noting they are exploiting the current economic crisis.
“Organized labour is what created the middle class in North America,” he said. “The only thing that prevents us from going back to a time where a handful of people had everything and the rest of us had spit, is us.”
Firefighters face a “draconian fight,” he said.
But it’s one the union is not shying away from.
“Fighter is in our name,” he said. “When times are at their toughest, this union and its members are at their best,” said Schaitberger, who was in Whitehorse as part of the International Association of Firefighters Annual Western Canadian Conference.
About 70 fire service leaders from across the region attended the three-day conference, which wraps up this afternoon.
Holding it in Whitehorse was a gesture of solidarity for the labour problems the city’s fire service is facing, said local union president Brian Fedoriak.
“All the members wanted to come up to show solidarity and support for some of the struggles we’re facing,” he said. “They wanted to come here to show the city that it wasn’t just our 25 guys here.
“We have the backing of the Western Canada and the IAFF, 300,000 strong.”
Whitehorse’s firefighters are involved in a years-long contract battle with the city.
They’ve been without a collective agreement since 2009.
Two rounds of negotiations haven’t produced a contract.
Compensation and staffing levels are two unresolved issues.
A pay-equity plan that compares the salaries of the firefighters to other city employees is one point of contention.
Such comparisons are not appropriate, said Fedoriak.
“No disrespect to other city employees, but we feel that firefighters are different in the work we do,” he said. “In determining firefighter salaries we can only really compare ourselves to firefighters.”
With the city’s continued growth, the fire service needs more full-time staff to keep up, said Fedoriak.
While recent changes to the dispatch office have freed up one firefighter to attend emergencies, more are still needed.
“We’d always like to see more guys on our trucks initially responding to calls because that’s when, essentially, the greatest danger is,” said Fedoriak. “It would be nice to have four guys on the trucks out of each fire hall.
“We would need 10 to 12 new full-timers.”
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