By Jennifer Gomori, MAFF Editor

There was a major disconnect between Woodhaven Firefighters and their former Union representation, so they turned to Michigan Association of Fire Fighters (MAFF) to settle their next contract.

“We were with UAW throughout the duration - since 1999,” said Local Union President Kevin Griswold. “Other thanmaff logo 2007 cost of living adjustments, the contract was the same for 20 plus years. That’s why I’m in the spot I’m in.”

In August, they joined MAFF to improve their contract language and reunite their workforce. “It was pretty close to unanimous,” said Local Union Steward Bill Vigilante of the vote to join MAFF. “I think we had one ‘No.’”

United Auto Workers (UAW) had boilerplate contract language, which did not address many of their concerns. The group is seeking language that is public safety specific in their bylaws, constitution and the entire contract, said Griswold, a full-time firefighter.

MAFF Labor Relations Specialist Gary McSweeney is working with the new unit, which currently has five full-time and 22 part-time firefighters, to revise their contract language.

“With the contract not being updated in 20 years, there’s a lot to go over,” Griswold said. “It’s going to take some time to comb through that before we’re ready to bargain. I’d be happy with a contract before the New Year, but with as much as needs to be changed we’ll see.”

With over four times more part-timers and one of their full-time firefighters taking the retiring Woodhaven Fire Chief’s position, Griswold said having more full-time staff in place is a primary concern. 

“Basically, we’re pushing for more full-time positions,” Griswold said. “We’ve never had more than six full-time firefighters at one time and we’re hoping to get more down the road, even if it’s not this contract.”

Vigilante returned to his prior position as a part-time Woodhaven Firefighter after retiring in 2013 from his full-time position at Trenton Fire Department. “When I left (to take the full-time position), there were six full-time (Woodhaven) firefighters and there’s not been much movement,” he said.

“In general, for the department, we need to have a language cleanup with better wording overall and then, for part-time members, I would like to see a wage increase,” Vigilante said.

With a high demand for public safety workers throughout the country, he said, properly trained firefighters have their pick of departments making it increasing difficult to maintain staff. 

“We are not expecting the world, just a little bit more incentive for the guys,” Vigilante said. “You lose a lot of really good fire medics year in and year out. Really the citizens are losing out on excellent firefighters because the system hasn’t changed. I think there’s a few things that can make them happier and right the ship a little bit. We have a new Chief I’m feeling optimistic about. With change, there’s opportunity.”

Woodhaven Firefighters were operating under a one-year contract extension, which expired June 30, 2021. Unfortunately, the UAW allowed their contract to expire when they discovered the unit was checking into other representation.

“Initially we tried to join MAFF a year ago,” Vigilante said. “We missed our window of opportunity to sign up for MAFF then. When we found out how to (join MAFF), I gave them an alternative - that UAW has one year to show us what they can actually do. I absolutely would not sign a 3-year deal with them on behalf of the majority. The UAW came back with a letter of disinterest a few weeks later and the contract expired July 1.”

“They wanted us to sign a 3-year deal and we didn’t even want to sign 1-year deal with them,” Griswold said. “They (UAW) came to a meeting. We gave them a couple opportunities. We said, ‘We don’t feel we’re being represented. We need a different representative at the very least.’”

Over the years, the group witnessed disparities in representation of members and that was leading to conflict within the department. “For the most part, there was a lot of internal head-butting going on and we didn’t feel the UAW was representing the wishes of the whole department. It was just representing the wishes of a few,” Griswold said.

“We have issues they weren’t addressing as far as safety, training, promotion-wise for part-time,” Vigilante said. “I wouldn’t even say it was completely tilting (in favor of) full timers. It took care of a few and not the majority, like a Union really should be doing.”

Woodhaven Firefighters heard about the experience of being a MAFF member through one of their part-time co-workers. He used to work for Detroit EMS, which is represented by MAFF.

“The main reason was they were able to get very good contracts and a lot of good ideas because they represent other fire departments in the area. Also, Gary has a specific vested interest because he lives in Woodhaven,” Griswold said.

“Looking at the success with other fire departments and just to be, in general, with a fire- and police-minded union, that makes a big difference,” Vigilante said.

Both men said MAFF is already exceeding their expectations and they’re very much looking forward to contract talks.

“Ever since (MAFF Labor Relations Specialist) Joe O’Connor stopped by the first time, Joe and Gary have kept their word on absolutely everything they’ve said,” Griswold said. “They’ve been able to give us some feedback and ideas. I can’t think of a bad thing to say about either one of them. They’ve both done a phenomenal job.”

“Gary’s been in contact with me every other day. I’m happy with Gary and Joe and I’m happy with the fact that Gary lives right in town; that he retired from Woodhaven PD; and he was Steward with Woodhaven Command,” Vigilante said. “I think that’s a really big advantage.”