A Senate bill introduced just before Congress's summer recess Aug. 6 would provide collective bargaining rights for public safety officers, including EMS, fire and law enforcement personnel, employed by state or local governments. The timing of its introduction suggests the Senate may be poised to act swiftly upon its return in September.
S. 1611, or the "Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act of 2009," could dramatically impact EMS in some jurisdictions, particularly in those currently without any collective bargaining rights at all.
If S. 1611 passes as it's currently written, it will extend collective bargaining rights for public safety employees who work for government agencies to all 50 states. It will not, however, override right-to-work laws that currently exist in 22 states, meaning public safety employees in those states could not be compelled to join a union, nor could they be compelled to pay union dues.
However, they could be required to pay "their proportionate part of the union's proven bargaining costs," according to the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation Web site.
In addition, states would retain the authority to write their own laws on how collective bargaining would occur. The current bill does not allow public safety employees to strike if doing so will "measurably disrupt the delivery of emergency services" and does not prescribe how unions would be certified.
"The federal law that deals with unions is the National Labor Relations Act, and that's been around since about 1935," said Steve Wirth of Page, Wolfberg & Wirth, a national law firm that often represents management in EMS labor issues. "That applies to private companies. Public sector employees were not covered under any federal labor law, and that's what this is all about."
Of course, many police, fire and EMS organizations are already unionized under individual state public employee labor laws. "Thirty-two states have laws that allow for unionization of public employees and collective bargaining," Wirth said. "This law is basically giving the right to unionize all 50 states. That would incorporate those 32 that already have laws, and add to the list 18 states."
Although this bill is nowhere near as contentious as the proposed Employee Free Choice Act, it isn't without controversy. Parties on all sides of the issue agree on one thing: It is likely to pass. "This is something that the current administration has supported," said Skip Kirkwood, president-elect of the National EMS Management Association and chief of the Wake County EMS Division in Raleigh, N.C. "If it makes it on the radar screen, and it doesn't get too confusing, my guess is that it will pass." In fact, the bill enjoys bipartisan support. At press time, it had nine co-sponsors in the Senate—five Republicans and four Democrats.
Congress asserts in S. 1611 that unionization of public safety employees is in the national interest as it would "provide the institutional stability" required to ensure adequate and effective response to such events as terrorist attacks, natural disasters and other mass casualty events.
They also state, "the Federal Government needs to encourage conciliation, mediation and voluntary arbitration to aid and encourage employers and the representatives of their employees to reach and maintain agreements concerning rates of pay, hours and working conditions." Further, the bill states, "providing minimal standards for collective bargaining negotiations in the public safety sector can prevent industrial strife between labor and management that interferes with the normal flow of commerce."
Unions are aggressively lobbying in favor of this legislation's passage. "This bill is interesting and is important for several reasons, not the least of which because EMS as an entity is not mentioned in federal legislation much at all," said Jamie Orsino, an EMT with the Boston Police EMS Division and president of the EMS Labor Alliance, a national alliance of several unions that represent EMTs and paramedics. "What it demonstrates is a new age that's dawning where EMS is recognized on the federal level as a separate profession. The vast majority of people who provide EMS in the country are not dual trained. Their job is very distinct; they are EMTs and paramedics. It's a very important step."
The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), which represents mostly fire-based EMS personnel but some single-role EMS agencies as well, has been very active in pursuing S. 1611, said Lori Moore-Merrell, assistant to the general president of IAFF. "When you're discussing wages, hours, working conditions, benefits -- everyone should have a seat at the table." In addition, she emphasized that unionized agencies have fewer injuries, experience improved health and safety, and enjoy better working conditions precisely because "everyone has buy-in to the process."
Orsino said representation for EMS personnel is also important because "the benefits that are afforded to EMTs and paramedics are a lot less than those afforded to their brothers and sisters in law enforcement and the fire service. Most EMTs who are not working under a collective bargaining agreement are working a minimum of 60 hours a week just to make ends meet." This, he said, poses a challenge to the national interest of having response-ready first responders. "How are you going to pick up those 60 hours to do your regular work, and then on top of that become part of the ready reserve and provide the surge capacity that everyone's talking about? Those 100-hour workweeks are going to burn out the workforce very quickly."
He added, "EMTs and paramedics should be justly compensated, and they should be compensated with regard to their actual job duties, the risks that they take, the dangers associated with the job, and I think in a lot of areas, they are not."
As expected, there is an equally vocal group of organizations representing management and states interests that are lobbying against the bill's passage. "This has been introduced several times dating back to at least the '90s, and our organization has been actively opposing it and working with other management organizations in opposition -- not because we're opposed to labor relations and collective bargaining, but because we believe that a federal mandate solution is not in the best interest of the state and local governments," said Mike Kolb, executive director of the National Public Employer Labor Relations Association (NPELRA).
Greg Mourad, director of legislation with the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, is against the bill because "the law says that every state will have to create a system of monopoly bargaining for all police, firefighters and EMTs, whether they're a right-to-work state or not."
"We think it's a very bad bill. From our perspective, it's wrong to force people to accept a union as their bargaining agent, regardless of the question of whether they can be forced to pay dues," Mourad said. "In America, even a convicted criminal gets the right to say who is going to represent him. In a unionized workplace, non-union workers do not have that right. They are forced to let the union represent them, whether they want that or not."
How all this will play out at the local level remains to be seen, and will range from little to no impact in states that are already unionized to significant changes in those that aren't. North Carolina, for example, is one state where the EMS system could dramatically change in the wake of S. 1611's passage. "North Carolina is not only a right-to-work state, but there is no collective bargaining whatsoever for public employees by state law," Kirkwood said. "This would completely change that."
North Carolina is unique in that the county government runs EMS. "North Carolina is very much a county third-service state, because state law assigns EMS authority to the counties," Kirkwood said.
No county employees work under collective bargaining agreements, and he's concerned about the potential fallout from a small sliver of county employees unionizing. "County governments could decide to get out of the EMS business rather than have to run essentially two different human resources and management models," he said. "That would be bad for the employees, because right now they have public employee pensions and benefits."
The actual impact on wages and benefits for EMS as a whole is another unknown. "The mere fact that employees organize doesn't mean that there's a change in wages and benefits," Kirkwood said. "There are plenty of places around the country where employees have unionized and wound up worse off than they were before their organization. From the employee perspective, I'm sure the goal is to improve wages, benefits and other aspects of working conditions, but there's nothing that says you actually get there."
EMSLA's Orsino said that although he certainly would like to see improvements in wages and benefits result from collective bargaining, he is concerned about "unfunded mandates" and whether they could result in layoffs by further straining local governments that have seen their tax revenues dry up in the recession. But he said in his experience, unions aren't unreasonable.
"The organization that I represent in Boston just imposed a wage freeze in an attempt to maintain critical staffing levels. We accepted a wage freeze for a year," Orsino said. "Despite the rallying cry that unions are greedy, children-eating, money-grubbing -- whatever it is -- unions have worked with management in the past on these issues and come to mutual resolution."
As a manager, Kirkwood said he's had both positive and negative experiences with unions. "In some places, you have unions that are engaged in wanting to make the organization better. In other places, you have unions where it seems their only mission is to protect the jobs of their members, no matter how bad those members might be, and to impede change in the organization," he said. "If you get one of those locals, it's a bad thing. Having a good local is nice, because if we're all agreed we want to go in the same direction, the employees have -- through their union -- access to advocate and take positions that management may not be able to. The union can work on the city council and involve themselves in the political process to advance what they've decided is a common cause."
Who Will Represent EMS?
Unions aren't waiting for the bill to pass to start organizing initiatives. IAFF's Moore-Merrell said that regardless of S. 1611's passage, "We constantly try to organize. We have an entire contingent in the field."
NPELRA is seeing union activity step up throughout the nation. Kolb said his association has been approached multiple times over the past year by local public safety agencies in need of assistance because they don't know how to handle the surge in union activity. "The unions are already making inroads in getting access to employees, starting organizing drives, even though this law has been pending for years," he said.
Exactly which union will represent agencies will vary throughout the nation, with mixed results. "It seems EMS labor cannot get its act together," Kirkwood said. "There are local EMS organizations represented by the Teamsters, the janitors, the office workers, SEIU, IAFF -- even non-fire EMS -- which makes no sense to me because the IAFF is out there advocating for fire-based EMS above most kinds of EMS. I don't know what's in the mind of EMS labor folks -- I'm in management -- but their actions seem to not make much sense to me."
Orsino said he'd prefer to see organizing efforts take hold at the local rather than the national level. "It seems to me, because there are different laws in different states, that's the best way to approach it as opposed to one national union that represents everybody. Strength is great on the national level, but 50 states with 50 different sets of laws -- it gets lost at the top."
IAFF said they are "avid supporters" of EMS, including single-role EMS. "If there's an opportunity there, we will certainly take them in," Moore-Merrell said. Suffice it to say, there are strong opinions about whether that's in the best interest of EMS.
What is clear is S. 1611's passage would boost union membership, which is declining nationwide across all industries. "The number of unionized workers in this country has gone down virtually every year since 1970," Wirth said. "In the private sector, approximately 12% of employees are unionized. If you throw in the public sector, it knocks it up to 17 or 18%."
It's also clear that there's a lot of money and political influence attached to union membership and dues. "Everybody loves numbers," Orsino said. "When you go to Washington, the first thing they ask you is, ‘How many people do you represent?'"
With the intense interest in health-care reform and the Employee Free Choice Act, S. 1611 hasn't garnered the attention it probably deserves at the local level. "This is not on a lot of people's radar," Kolb said. "It's amazing how many people don't know about it, don't care about it or think they'll be insulated from it."