When I retired from the City of Miami Fire Department almost three years ago, I felt I had a solid relationship with the Miami Association of Firefighters. I was proud of what we had accomplished together and I believed that Local 587 President Robert Suarez was, too.
Looking back, I reflected on what made the relationship between us a good one. I realized our relationship was built on trust, respect, integrity and mutual goals. It certainly wasn’t done overnight and had taken a few years to mature to that level.
Last August, I was hired as the fire chief of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue (MDFR). I came in during a time when pay cuts were looming. The current collective bargaining agreement had ended and a new one needed to be negotiated.
I was somewhat of an outsider but over the years, I’d fortunately worked on many issues with the president of Local 1403, Dominick Barbera.
Dominick has seen it all. He has done union work for more than 35 years, not just with the local, but also at the state level and at the international level as 12th district vice president.
I really wondered if what I had learned in my years with Miami and what I had taught during Labor-Management Initiative (LMI) courses would be helpful in establishing a cooperative relationship between management and labor within MDFR. After all, I may have known Dominick, but didn’t know many of his executive board members with whom I would now be working.
I realized quickly that I had to build a relationship with them, too. I started by meeting with the executive board for two hours. Our discussion focused on the direction of where both organizations wanted to go.
After one formal negotiation session with the county’s negotiating team, Local 1403 and management decided we would conduct workshops together and separately from the negotiating team. Our first priority was to look for operational savings and for ways to reduce the number of concessions local members would have to make.
During this negotiating period, a few issues that previous management had made decisions without labor’s input were raised. Once they were discussed, we agreed with the local’s input and reversed the decisions and policies, to the chagrin of some of our staff.
This was difficult, but it started to build trust in our relationship with Local 1403.
During our workshops, we didn’t hold back on the management side. We went to the meetings with ideas to cut overtime through redeployment of personnel, eliminating management positions and trimming our services where possible.
I was surprised to see the local coming up with many good ideas that made sense—in areas that aren’t always easy to sell to local members. But when the local saw what management was willing to do, including eliminating some management positions to reduce the deficit, they made some tough decisions to produce concessions, including furlough days and reassignments among others.
The local’s focus was to get to a contract that was as mild as possible for their members. I was proud that within two months we had the first completed contract out of eight other bargaining units within Miami-Dade County.
Next, we started working on a stack of grievances that went back as far as five years. Some were easy to settle; others were very expensive and more complicated. Gradually, we whittled them down to a handful.
As elections for local president were ramping up, President Barbera chose not to run again for local president and Rowan Taylor was elected. Luckily, Rowan had been involved as the chief negotiator for the local and didn’t miss a beat in working toward our mutual goals.
When faced with a new local president, having a great relationship right off the bat is a rare thing. Even with President Taylor, it took some defining moments to know that we had trust and integrity on both sides. In addition, sometimes we had disagreements over how to address issues and had to work hard to find solutions that were palatable to both sides. There is rarely only one way to skin the cat.
I feel the relationship we have in Miami-Dade is very solid. I wouldn’t say it’s a marriage made in heaven, but I can say we’re always trying to make it better. Real labor-management relationships experience occasional arguments, disagreements and posturing—and all of this is totally normal.
This is the way it should work.
Both sides have a job to do and are responsible to the organizations and the members they serve. Sometimes it’s difficult for fire chiefs and union presidents to understand that cooperative relationships aren’t picture perfect; they require work, alternative thinking and tolerance. But the rewards to both parties are well worth it.
William “Shorty” Bryson is the chief of Miami-Dade (Fla.) Fire Rescue. He’s a facilitator for the IAFC/IAFF Labor-Management Initiative.