Union boots 3 firefighters for volunteering

HERMANTOWN - After Bob Noldin built a home in Hermantown last year, the 23-year veteran of the Duluth Fire Department decided he should serve on his new community's volunteer fire department.

HERMANTOWN - After Bob Noldin built a home in Hermantown last year, the 23-year veteran of the Duluth Fire Department decided he should serve on his new community's volunteer fire department.

"I thought it would be nice to help them, and they're short [of] firefighters up here," he said.

Noldin volunteered for Hermantown along with fellow Duluth firefighters Sandy Merritt and Brian Black. But when the Duluth Fire Union found out, the three were asked to resign their union memberships early this year. Noldin said he took that route rather than stop volunteering for Hermantown.

Under state law, the three are still technically union members and have to pay dues, but they don't have a voting stake in union activities.

Merritt and Black could not be reached Friday for comment.


"I don't feel that anybody should be able to tell a person what they can do in their days off for a community," Noldin said.

The fire union disagrees. Union President Erik Simonson acknowledges the three were asked to resign their memberships, saying that volunteering for another department is strictly prohibited in union bylaws. Simonson said his union is following the rules set out by the International Fire Union.

"This is primarily over concern for the safety of our members," Simonson said. "They are doing a job that is risky. If they were to get hurt, if something happens to them, they wouldn't be covered under the city liability coverage.

"In my mind, this issue was resolved internally a number of months ago," he added.

Simonson notes that Duluth firefighters aren't barred from any other work or volunteer activity when off-duty.

Noldin said he was told the forced resignations were in part due to another reason: fear that volunteers will take over full-time firefighting jobs.

"I don't think that will ever happen," Noldin said. "[Hermantown] has enough problems getting firefighters of their own."

Noldin said the fire union wanted to go further than the resignations and sought to fire the three. He said the union voted to insert language into the next contract that would have allowed the city administration to fire any firefighter who served on a volunteer department.


However, Noldin said he was told by Simonson on Friday that the union "wouldn't push" that language.

"He said there are more important issues to work on in the contract at this time," he said.

The provision didn't seem likely to make it into the contract, anyway.

"We continue to oppose this position and will not agree to it in any form," Duluth Mayor Don Ness said when asked for comment on Friday.

Simonson declined to comment on any effort to change contract language. As for firing employees who work as volunteer firefighters, he said "there are other locals that have a similar type of provision."

"If we were, and I'm not saying that we were, we would not be breaking any new ground," Simonson said.

The president of the Minnesota Professional Fire Fighters Union, Tom Thornberg, said he was aware of only one other union in the state that would fire employees for volunteering: St. Paul.

But the president of that union, Mike Smith, said the contract changed in early November after receiving a federal grant. Under the terms of that grant, "we can't discriminate against any employees volunteering on another department," Smith said.


The St. Paul union still has restrictions on firefighters serving on volunteer departments, including the ability to ask that employees be fired if they don't receive permission from the union to volunteer.

Smith said his union is following the stance of the International Fire Union, and their restrictions are meant to punish firefighters who serve on volunteer departments in the Twin Cities area.

"We believe that if a city can afford a full-time police department, they can afford a full-time fire department," he said.

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