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Reasons why Arbitration is needed

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By John Morse

There are always instances in life when people don’t get along, sometimes we figure things out and sometimes we need help working through disagreements.  If you are with a full time union department, one of the ways that we get these issues resolved is with the help of an arbitrator.

Disagreements can come up in many areas.  Sometimes these disagreements come up during contract negotiations, and sometimes issues come up outside of negotiations that we just can’t resolve.  A lot of these issues are money related when we don’t think we are getting a fair shake on payday. Other topics popular with arbitrators are promotions, discipline and insurance benefits.  They all have one thing in common, we don’t think we are being treated fairly.

When we negotiate a contract, the economic issues are always left until the end because they are the hardest to agree on.  We are usually locked into a list of comparable fire departments from earlier contracts.  Our pay should keep us in the middle of that group.  That sounds simple but when you add in things like incentive pay, numbers of days off, and benefits, it gets pretty complicated.  It’s hard to get all the firefighters to agree on these issues, even without the administrative opinions.

Insurance these days is a really tough issue.  There is this thing called the “affordable health care act”.  I don’t know where they got that name from, no health care is affordable these days.  Hospitals build waterfalls and pretty fish tanks and then charge you an arm and a leg while they call themselves non-profit.

Doctors and providers over charge and bill insurance, then we get insurance premiums that are through the roof.  Cities and firefighters share in the cost of these premiums.  No matter who pays, it all takes away from our take home pay.  The whole country is trying to figure out insurance, and we often need an arbitrator to make a decision for us.

Firefighters get in trouble sometimes and there is discipline that takes place.  Discipline is often spelled out in contracts, but the interpretation of the contract and the discipline given cause disagreements.  Disciplinary issues are tough for union officers, especially when we are dealing with firefighters we work with every day.

If you look at most issues that go to arbitration, they are pretty simple things that get way out of hand.  We can spend thousands of dollars proving a point, even when proving that point doesn’t have much of a reward.  Legal fees for arbitrating and issues can easily reach $50,000.  That’s a lot of money to prove a point.

There are a few ways to avoid arbitration.  Some involve a formal procedure like mediation and others involve common sense and logical thinking.  A lot of these issues get complicated when we add our emotions and personal involvement.  Deciding the proper disciplinary procedure is a lot easier when it doesn’t involve our friend.  I have been involved in a lot of disagreements that stemmed from long term disagreements between firefighters and administration.  Years of festering finally leads to an arbitrator having to make a decision

If you are in a decision making position for your department, make sure you don’t let your emotion make your decisions.  Whether you are a firefighter or a Fire Chief, you owe it to your department to make decisions that are in the best interest of your department and not to prove your personal point.  Don’t let the names of the individuals influence your thoughts.  Make the right decision for the right reason and you don’t need to worry about the consequences.

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