True Concessions: Labor/management relations take on more importance during an economic downturn

True Concessions
Labor/management relations take on more importance during an economic downturn
By Deputy Chief Todd LeDuc, Commissioner Dennis Teel and IAFF 7th District VP Ricky Walsh

Never have labor/management relations been so important in the fire service. Why? The economic meltdown has brought unprecedented budget pressure on communities across the United States, which is in turn creating unprecedented pressures on fire departments.

Whether you blame it on sub-prime lending, decreased home valuations, devaluation of the equities markets, badly shaken consumer confidence or staggering unemployment, the fact of the matter is that public entities are facing large revenue gaps between taxes collected and cost for services provided. Local and state governments in many areas are looking to balance budgets by re-evaluating services provided and associated costs.

This financial landscape has created a significant challenge for public safety entities, because they often comprise the majority of local government’s expenditure budgets. Some fire departments have been forced to reduce staffing; others are taking stringent measures to cut costs in order to avoid layoffs. During the negotiations that accompany such decisions, the ability to communicate effectively and productively with organized labor leadership is essential.

Federal Mediation & Conciliation Service
The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS) provides mediation and arbitration service to communities, organizations and government agencies, with an emphasis on improved labor/management relationships. The FMCS provides training and facilitation in RBO and IBB and has worked successfully with many departments around the country. Learn more at

Labor-Management Initiative
The IAFC/IAFF Labor-Management Initiative (LMI) is a joint program of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), designed to foster cooperative and collaborative labor-management relationships. The program consists of two 2-day workshops held 6 months apart. Both workshops are facilitated by a fire chief/union president team. Learn more.

Trust But Verify
Key to these discussions: trust. Fire department administrators and labor leaders must maintain an open and transparent dialogue. President Ronald Regan was known for his “trust but verify” approach, something labor and management leaders should consider.

The first step lies in identifying the specific problems affecting your department. Simply stating the problem and its extent can take the emotion out of the equation and lend logic to the discussion.

Next, leaders will want to select a process to shape their discussions. Two successful processes are “relationship-by-objective” (RBO) and “interest-based bargaining” (IBB). These strategies assist in defining the interest or challenge needing to be addressed and provide respectful insight for the other party to understand the goal(s). By using one or both of these processes, labor and management can build trusting, transparent relationships that yield productive results.

The RBO program is often thought of as pertaining only to departments where labor/management relationships are strained or fractured, but it can also be used to improve already positive relationships. Basically, the RBO provides a structured process whereby teams of labor/management leaders identify the problems in the relationship, then set objectives or goals to achieve what’s needed and to improve the relationship. The committees then develop an action plan to achieve the goals.

This process can be used jointly all year long, not just at contract time. The model outlines how each major issue will be addressed, defining steps such as analysis, decision, education, implementation, revision and review.

Interest-Based Bargaining
IBB is an excellent tool that many departments have used in conjunction with the RBO to enhance their problem-solving. Labor and management also use the IBB process for their negotiation of new and/or successor contracts or memorandums of understanding (MOUs).

Most of the time, we regard negotiation as a process in which one or both sides make compromises to their position until a mutual solution is reached. In IBB, the focus is shifted away from “This is what we want” to “Why do we want what we want?” By focusing on interests rather than desires, more solutions become available. The goal changes from “victory” for one side to a “solution” that addresses as many shared interests as possible. Because this is a collaborative process that focuses on transparency and honesty—rather than positioning and power plays more common in negotiation—long-term relationships are often improved as well.

Share the Pain
Management is increasingly being forced to ask for (and conversely, labor is being forced to consider) economic concessions to save positions and service levels. With this possibility looming over the work site, both parties must share the pain. Cutting benefits in a collective bargaining agreement, MOU or employee handbook (whichever document exists at your worksite) can be easier for labor to digest if management is willing to concede to non-economic items previously viewed as “permissible” or “management rights” during bargaining sessions or labor/management relations meetings. Concessions by both parties can keep morale high, thus ensuring an uninterrupted service delivery to our citizens while simultaneously ensuring that the safety and economic interest of the labor pool are maintained.

There are many examples of IAFF affiliates stepping up to the plate and making concessions to keep their departments staffed and ready to serve their citizens. Doing this required a trust factor between the labor representative and the management representative; at times, the personalities in place chose to step away to provide a better opportunity for resolution. In some work sites, benefits were deferred to the end of the agreement, while in others, items that management previously held sacred (staffing, workday schedules, promotional testing and physical fitness) were offered up to entice concession and resolution.

Ultimately, weathering this economic storm requires cooperation between labor and management leaders. This can only happen in an atmosphere of mutual trust between the parties. Past history aside, the parties must come together in the spirit of teamwork, and the final agreements must have elements that share the pain equally.
In addition, all parties should come away with a feeling of hope for a better future. Such agreements are necessary to get us to a better day, which will only come through open and honest dialog.

Todd J. LeDuc, MS, CFO, CEM, is deputy chief for Broward County (Fla.) Sheriff Fire Rescue, a career metro department of nearly 600 members in Southeast Florida. He publishes and speaks frequently on fire department management and leadership issues. He can be reached at

Dennis Teel is a commissioner with the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS) in Phoenix. He has mediated high-profile cases in both the public and private sectors and has worked on cases with fire and police departments, as well as the healthcare, education, construction, industrial, oil and chemical, and transportation industries. He can be reached at

Ricky Walsh is 7th District Vice President representing IAFF Locals in the states of Washington, Montana, Idaho and Alaska. He is versed in and instructs on contract negotiations, mediation, arbitration, labor/management relations and leadership. Additionally, he is a fire captain with paramedic certification at the Richland Fire Department located in Southeast Washington state. He can be reached at

Copyright © Elsevier Inc., a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. SUBSCRIBE to FIRERESCUE

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