For the past 16 months, veteran Ventura County firefighter Ron Relyea has sought to create an oxymoron: a one-man union.
Angered by what he considers ineffective representation by the Ventura County Professional Firefighters Assn., Relyea notified officials last year that he wanted to represent himself--something no other county employee had ever requested.
Relyea's effort is seen by the county as a challenge that would disrupt collective bargaining. And even though the Ventura County Civil Service Commission has ruled that state law endorses his quest, county officials have yet to sit down with him at the bargaining table.
"When you start fighting the entrenched bureaucracy, it's like punching Jell-O," said Relyea, 50, of Simi Valley. "The more you win, the more you lose."
Relyea is by no means anti-union. During his 25 years of fighting fires, he served as union president for three years and sat on the firefighter union's board of directors for nine years.
"When one of the guys got in trouble, whether you agreed with him or not wasn't important," he said. "The important thing was that he paid his dues and when he needed representation, he got it."
Relyea said the union has not lived up to that promise in the past four years. Deals have been cut and union members have been shut out, he said. And the results of several votes on important union matters have been kept secret, he added.
"I'm sorry Mr. Relyea feels that way," said Mark Sanchez, a vice president of the firefighters union. "We're talking about one person out of a membership that is more than 350 strong. I don't see a movement of people dropping out of the union."
In January, 1988, Relyea let county officials know that he was no longer a member of the union and would be bargaining for himself. Last fall, he filed a contract proposal that addressed such safety issues as diesel fumes circulating in firehouse living quarters, how often new safety garb must be issued and when firefighters must be fed while fighting a stubborn fire. But he said he got no response.
Relyea filed an unfair labor practice charge with the Civil Service Commission in December because the county had not negotiated with him. And in March, the commission ruled 3 to 0 in his favor. The commission recommendation was sent to the County Board of Supervisors on April 11, and personnel officials are considering whether to comply.
Little-Used Section of Law
Ray Charles, the Civil Service Commission's staff representative, said a little-used section of the 1969 state law governing the relationship between public agencies and their employees allows individuals the same rights to negotiate a contract as unions.
All Relyea wanted to do was represent himself, Charles said. "He was furious to think they could violate the law just by ignoring him."
Still, Charles acknowledged, if every employee sought to fully exercise the right to negotiate for himself, it "could really play havoc with the system."
Barry Hammitt, executive director of the Public Employees Assn. of Ventura County, which represents 6,500 workers, disagreed with the commission's interpretation of the law.
Hammitt said the clause on which the commission based its decision ensures that extremely small employee groups--for instance, the single gravedigger in a small town--are allowed to negotiate with their employer even if not represented by a union.
"It's dumb, and I think the Civil Service Commission blew it on that one," Hammitt said. Besides, "a person who represents himself has a fool for a client."
Ed McLean, the county's chief labor negotiator, said his staff has not decided how to respond to the Civil Service Commission's recommendation. In addition to raising numerous technical and procedural problems, McLean said, Relyea's request also turns the notion of collective bargaining on its head.
"Individuals who felt that they lacked the clout individually to effectively bargain joined together . . . to collectively bargain," McLean said. What Relyea wants "would seem to be a significant step backward."
But Relyea's fellow firefighters do not all agree that what he wants is a step backward. To some of them, he's a hero.
"I think there's a lot like me who admire Ron for what he's doing," said a fellow firefighter of Simi Valley's Battalion 45. "He's got the guts and the tenacity to do it. There's a lot of us behind him."
The support of other firefighters, Relyea said, has been encouraging. "Everybody would like to beat city hall once in a while," he said.