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LMI Technical Assistance: A Success Story

We have been asked to share an overview of our experience with the IAFC/IAFF Labor-Management Initiative (LMI) Technical Assistance process. Before I can do that, I need to provide a history of our organization and the path that led to our call to the LMI program at the IAFC.

The Tucson Fire Department was established in 1881, serves a population of approximately 500,000 citizens and has a current uniform staffing level of 619. Like many larger city fire departments, we have a strong labor union. The Tucson Firefighter's Local 479 was established in 1936 and maintains a 99% membership.

Over the years, we've had our labor-management issues—issues related to discipline, rules of assignment, policy and procedure, etc. We rarely needed to discuss money issues such as wages and benefits. These topics are agreed upon between the city manager and the union leadership.

As the economy declined, how money was spent became a topic between management and labor. The fire chief at that time was looking ahead at some very difficult decisions—decisions that would likely require a reduction in work force or reduction in wages and benefits.

As you can imagine, neither of these options was popular with our labor group. Management worked through the task of balancing the budget within the boundaries given us by City Hall. Labor had some alternate ideas on how things should be managed and questioned information being presented. This led to a breakdown in communication and in trust with one another.

We got through this very painful budget cycle. The results included the loss of 56 firefighter positions, with reductions achieved through attrition, not layoffs. The reduction in staff required closing companies, reducing service, and firefighters taking an almost 9% cut in pay and benefits. The budget cycle was behind us, but the relationship issues remained.

At about this time, Tucson Fire went through a change in leadership. The city manager selected me to be the new fire chief. Union President Roger Tamietti and I knew we needed to improve our relationship. The challenges we faced were how to start and who would lead the effort. If either management or labor drove the conversation, it would be received with skepticism from the other side. We needed a third party to come in and help us facilitate our conversation. I looked to the IAFC and was directed to the LMI program.

The LMI technical assistance process was a perfect fit for our needs. A facilitator from the IAFF, Walter Dix, and a facilitator from the IAFC, Rich Marinucci, teamed up to lead our meeting.

The leadership of both labor and management was asked to complete a questionnaire describing the problems. The common theme revolved around trust and communication. We also identified succession planning as a critical need within both our organizations. To support educating our future leadership, we invited the department's rising stars to participate.

In May, we began our two-day meeting. We selected an offsite location to provide a level playing field. We had 20 participants, evenly split between labor and management. At the beginning, we spent time getting to know more about one another; we learned interesting facts that would not otherwise come out in our day-to-day work.

Walter and Rich took us through a process of identifying our issues, but more importantly, verbalizing them to one another in a safe environment. Where conversations could have become personally directed, the facilitators were able to keep the dialog positive and validate individual concerns.

Before the first day ended, both facilitators had determined that our problems were very common and, compared to some organizations, minor in nature. We spent the two days identifying issues, developing solutions and making plans for the future.

Ironically, some of our most progressive ideas, such as the expanded use of social media, came from our rising stars.

Here are a few of the take-aways from the technical assistance process:

  • Make sure we have a posted agenda for the monthly labor-management meetings.
  • Get management out to the stations and reconnect with the troops.
  • Labor won't back-door management with the city council and city manager's office.
  • Management will communicate with labor on big decisions to make the most-informed decision possible.
  • The fire chief and union president will keep each other updated on current topics. We may not agree on each topic, but shouldn't be surprised when they come up.

We left the meeting with a greater level of trust in each other. With trust came improved communication; with better communication came a better working relationship.

Our labor-management relationship is strong. We still have very difficult days ahead of us with the budget, but with the help of the LMI program, we'll navigate these challenges working together.

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