New Senate bill could force cities to recognize firefighters’ unions
President of Steamboat Springs Professional Fire Fighters says local union would welcome collective bargaining rights
January 20, 2013
Steamboat Springs — Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue Capt. Michael Arce said Sunday that there are many ways local firefighters benefit from their union membership.
When firefighters here successfully pushed for pay raises last year, Arce said data gathered with the help of the Colorado Professional Firefighters helped illustrate that emergency workers in Steamboat Springs were being paid far less than their counterparts in other cities.
"It also gives us access to a lot of information through the International Association of Firefighters," Arce said about the union membership.
He said it also provides local firefighters with other valuable information ranging from safety training tips to the announcement of new firefighting equipment.
Of Steamboat’s 28 firefighters, Arce said 26 are members of the local union that is a chapter of the CPFA.
But the union is not recognized by the city of Steamboat Springs.
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A bill introduced last week in the Colorado State Senate aims to force municipalities across the state to recognize local firefighting unions and give firefighters collective bargaining rights.
It isn’t yet clear whether Steamboat’s full-time firefighting force will be affected by the legislation — the proposed bill may only apply to departments of 50 firefighters or more — but city officials and Arce are keeping a close eye on the bill’s progress.
Arce, the president of the local firefighting union and a 16-year veteran of the fire department, said Sunday that collective bargaining would benefit local emergency workers.
"It gives us the right to sit at the table (with city managers) and have a voice, and that goes with anything from safety to compensation," he said. "Anybody would love the chance to sit at the table with their boss."
But city officials here and in several other municipalities across the state see collective bargaining as a potential threat.
"The reason municipalities get upset with bills like this is because state statutes that would impose (collective bargaining rights) really erode our power as a home rule city," Interim City Manager Deb Hinsvark said. "Citizens want to set their own standards and laws."
She added that voters should decide whether to grant only a certain set of public employees bargaining rights, not the legislature.
She added that if the bill is passed and signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, cities in the future could find themselves having to agree to salary increases for firefighters over an extended number of years.
"That could be damaging for a city that relies on sales tax and there’s volatility in the revenue stream," she said.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Lois Tochtrop, D-Thornton, is similar to one passed in 2009.
But it did not go into effect after it was vetoed by Gov. Bill Ritter.
Arce said he and other local firefighters don’t have any plans to campaign or publicly voice support for the current legislation, but he would welcome collective bargaining in Steamboat
"If it were given to us, we’d accept it and run with it," he said. "But if not, we’re still going to do what we do, and we’re going to do it with a smile on our face."
He added he understands why city officials like Hinsvark are concerned by the bill.
"It takes a little bit of control out of their hands," he said.
Fire Chief Mel Stewart said Thursday that he still was learning about the implications of the bill, and he took a neutral approach to collective bargaining.
He said he thinks it works well in some cities, but it also can make salary and other negotiations a "little more onerous to get things done sometimes because you have to work with a bargaining unit to get things approved."
Mike Rogers, president of the CPFA, told the Associated press earlier this month that the union represents 3,800 professional firefighters in the state, and only 14 of the union’s 40 local chapters are able to utilize collective bargaining rights.
Without collective bargaining, Arce said firefighters rely on Stewart and Public Safety Director Joel Rae to represent them.
"I think they represent us very well," he said, adding the pay raises for firefighter and EMTs was a big victory for local emergency responders. "But you can also get in situations where you have a chief or a public safety director who don’t serve you very well."
To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210 or email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com