(Sheridan,Wyo) - Last year, in response to a county decision to change pay structures without consulting them, career firefighters from the Jackson Hole Fire/EMS Association voted to unionize with the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF). Negotiations between IAFF Local No. 5067, the Jackson City Council and Teton County Board of Commissioners were halted based upon an opinion handed down by the Wyoming Attorney General Peter K. Michael relating to a similar case in Campbell County.
Currently, the case has been assigned to 4th Judicial District Judge John Fenn in Sheridan, presumably because he is an objective third party. If appealed, the case could potentially land in the Wyoming Supreme Court and the outcome could affect all Wyoming emergency personnel.
THE CONTROVERSY CENTERS AROUND VOLUNTEER FIREFIGHTERS
In both cases, under the guidance of the IAFF, volunteer firefighters were excluded from the union. According to the attorney general, because volunteer firefighters in Wyoming do receive a stipend, they qualify as paid firefighters. Consequently, the newly formed union is not a legally organized entity because it does not represent all "paid" firefighters for the purposes of contract negotiation. This issue is significant because there are approximately 350,000 career firefighters in America, compared to over 800,000 volunteer firefighters.
A VERY SIMILAR SITUATION PREVIOUSLY OCCURRED IN GILLETTE
In Campbell County, firefighter's demanded the resignation of the fire chief and voted to unionize. Union president Brian Borgialli cited numerous reasons for the action, including protection, open communication, a support network and additional training. He was adamant that a pay raise was not among the reasons; a factor that was favored by the county. Traditionally, decisions regarding the Campbell County Fire Department rested with the Fire Board and the County Commission. Commission Chairman Matt Avery asserted that he did not feel the union needed to be involved to resolve the issue. The situation was brought to a standstill when the Wyoming attorney general issued his opinion that volunteer firefighters would have to be included for unionization to be legal.
WYOMING IS A RIGHT TO WORK STATE
Emergency departments have not unionized across the state, largely due to Wyoming's status as a right-to-work state. This means that union membership cannot be a requirement for employment. Conversely, employers cannot require that employees not join a union as a condition of employment.
Both the Campbell County and Teton County union leaders desire to improve public perceptions of unions. While state statutes may be over-ridden during the collective bargaining process, Wyoming law definitively prohibits emergency personnel from striking.