By Jennifer Gomori, MAFF Editor

Port Huron Township Fire Fighters were starting to wonder why they were paying a union dues to represent them when they had to write their own contract and pay additional fees for grievance representation. Previously represented by the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) for well over a decade, the full-time staff voted in March to join MAFF.

“From what they indicated to me they didn’t feel properly represented and they did not get a lot of support from their prior group,” said MAFF Labor Relations Specialist Jerald James. “They wrote their own contract and negotiated their own contract. They were essentially on their own for all intents and purposes.”

“I’ve never heard of (a situation like) that before,” James said. “Maybe because it’s such a small group, that’s the only thing I can surmise as to why they didn’t get more representation.”

” Honestly, in my opinion, the IAFF is an international union and they’ve got bigger fish to fry than the three of us. They didn’t even put up a fight when we said, ‘hey we’re leaving,’” said Port Huron Township Captain Rob May, local union president. The rest of the staff is unrepresented paid-on-call.

May said it was difficult for the three to raise enough money to put into a special account to fund attorney fees if they ever needed for arbitration. The IAFF required this account in addition to their regular dues. “We had money in an account to pay the cost of the lawyers. The amount we’d put in wouldn’t nearly reach the cost for arbitration. That would be drained in a matter of seconds,” May said.

May began checking into other representation, calling neighboring Chelsea Area Fire Authority after seeing they were represented by MAFF on the MAFF website. “I talked to the President of Chelsea Fire. The representation you had to offer, union-wise, compared to our previous union ... what we get out of those dues is better than what we get with IAFF. We have a lot more representation available,” May said.

Their current contract is one the members themselves wrote and negotiated, but MAFF stepped in and helped the group prior to it being signed and will represent them ensuring the contract is followed until a new one can be negotiated in 2019. Their current three-year agreement includes two percent pay raises each year, a decline from the prior contract which had three-percent raises. The new contract, which was ratified April 25, 2017, is in effect from Jan. 1, 2017 to Dec. 31, 2019.

“We did our own contract and our own negotiation (with IAFF),” May said, “We had representation from Jerald in the first couple months. I’ve never even seen or talked to anyone in the IAFF in the whole time we were represented. We filed our own stuff with MERC. All the legwork we did ourselves.”

When members have to negotiate their own contract, they are often at a disadvantage lacking the legal expertise and research abilities a union like MAFF can provide. “They should’ve gotten three percent over three years,” James said, referring to their previous contract. “We couldn’t modify it much because they already tentatively agreed to it.”

James was still able to get Port Huron Township Fire some improvements. “There were some areas in the contract that needed improvement from a language standpoint. We looked to make some modifications that better support the employee from a legal perspective,” James said. “Our goal is to provide them with the representation that they paid for which was not occurring with the prior group.”

The unit was told by the Township that they were not able to give them retroactive pay, but James immediately went to work digging into the issues. “We found out one of the other unions in the township did get retro pay. We were able to get retro pay - we were able to get our raises initiated prior to the finalization of the contract,” May said. “He also got us a couple certificate bonuses.”

In addition to receiving $500 bonuses for each of the following: HAZMAT Tech, Fire Inspector, and Rope Rescue certification, the group now receives the bonuses for Fire Investigator and Blue Card certifications as well.

“The prior contract expired Dec. 31, 2016. The fact that the contract expired and they did not have an official new contract, it gave them ability to change unions,” James said. “When it came time to get the contract signed, they wanted a new group. After the vote (to join MAFF), we took over the (tentative) contract they had. We’ve been representing them since March.”

“It was a very weird dynamic - the only thing the IAFF did for them was to review the contract. They never had any face-to-face meeting with IAFF,” James said. “Lucky for this group they had a good relationship with the Employer.”