Bartlett firefighter group backs off push to unionize

Paid-on-call firefighters flip on majority decision


The paid-on-call firefighters of the Bartlett Fire Protection District have backed off an earlier push to unionize.

Last month, 29 out of the district's 40 paid-on-call personnel petitioned Teamsters Local 330 for union representation -- more than the required 50 percent.

But last week, the Elgin-based union got another notice signed by 19 of the same people withdrawing their names from the petition.

"There are other ways we feel we can solve our concerns," wrote the paid-on-call firefighters to the Teamsters. "At this point it's not the right time."

Compensation, job security and favoritism among the district leaders were the main motives behind wanting to unionize, according to Teamsters Local 330 President Dominic Romanazzi.

Bartlett, a fully volunteer-based fire department as recently as 15 years ago, has since shifted its focus to full-time hires and now boasts 34 on its payroll.

It plans to hire 12 more this year alone, Chief Kevin Heine said, after a 2006 tax hike and a recent federal grant worth nearly $1 million.

Many of Bartlett's paid-on-call firefighters are worried they'll be phased out as a result.

Unionizing may have secured Bartlett's paid-on-call program, but for whatever reason -- no one will say for sure -- the campaign fizzled.

Romanazzi said he was told by some paid-on-calls that management used scare tactics -- an accusation Heine flatly denies.

"There's nothing to that at all. No fallout, no retaliation, no retribution," Heine said. "If they went union, they're welcome to do that."

Fire district Trustee Art Pierscionek said some paid-on-call firefighters may have felt pressured by the veterans to sign. Heine thinks some of the newer people didn't realize what they were signing.

The younger firefighters also may have reconsidered because they're looking to catch on with Bartlett or somewhere else full time.

Bob Davis, a paid-on-call firefighter with Bartlett, signed the petition and did not renege.

"I signed with mixed feelings," said Davis, a physical education teacher in Lombard. "For a lot of people, (unionizing) is a matter of job security for a department that's in quite a bit of flux."

Romanazzi said there are numerous reasons paid-on-call firefighters would want to unionize.

"Right now they can be fired at will and there's no recourse," he said. "They'd have protection and rights. We'd work for benefits and to increase wages."

Like their name suggests, paid-on-call firefighters are paid every time they respond to an emergency call. Many fire departments are finding them obsolete.

But Heine says it's a great program, one he doesn't see disappearing anytime soon. Paid-on-calls provide flexibility with manning and additional staff at both stations, he said. They keep costs down and don't get benefits.

There are downsides, too.

The days of getting paged while watching TV are dying. Most paid-on-calls work full time, and the state has implemented increasingly strict, time-consuming training. Bartlett also requires them to work a minimum of two 12-hour shifts each month. High turnover rates can result.

Wood Dale in July eliminated its 70-year-old paid-on-call program. According to the chief, it was a struggle for the part-time staff to meet training standards.

And Wheaton's program finally fell victim to a tough economy and changing times in 2003.