Wyoming Supreme Court Rules Firefighter Unions Must Include Volunteer Firefighters

The Supreme Court of Wyoming has ruled that in a combination fire department, part-time and volunteer firefighters are entitled to vote on whether or not firefighters can form a union. The decision was handed down Friday, July 6, 2018.

The case involved two IAFF locals, Campbell County Firefighters IAFF Local 5058 and Jackson Hole Professional Firefighters IAFF Local 5067, who sought to collectively bargain with their respective municipalities. In both cases the municipalities refused to recognize the locals as the exclusive bargaining agent.

According to the municipalities, Wyoming’s collective bargaining law for firefighters requires all employees who receive some compensation for their services to be included in the vote to unionize. Because the locals only allowed full-time career personnel to vote, the municipalities refused to recognize the unions.

From the decision:

  • The issue is whether volunteer and part-time (pool) fire fighters in the Jackson Hole Fire/EMS Department and volunteer fire fighters in the Campbell County Fire Department are “fire fighters” as defined by Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 27-10-lOl(a), and thus are entitled to be represented in collective bargaining negotiations.
  • Stat. Ann. §§ 27-10-101 through 27-10-109 establish the process by which fire fighters may form unions to collectively bargain in Wyoming.
  • The term “fire fighters” is defined, “unless the context requires a different interpretation,” as “paid members of any regularly constituted fire department in any city, town or county within the state.” Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 27-10-101(a)(i).
  • Fire fighters “have the right to bargain collectively with their respective cities, towns or counties” and have the right “to be represented by a bargaining agent in … collective bargaining as to wages, rates of pay, working conditions and all other terms and conditions of employment.” Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 27-10-102.
  • CCFD employs two categories of fire fighters: full-time, career fire fighters and volunteer fire fighters. Currently there are 23 career fire fighters and 200 volunteer fire fighters in the CCFD.
  • JHFD employs 18 full-time, career fire fighters; 7 part-time “pool” fire fighters; and 79 volunteer fire fighters.
  • IAFF Local 5058 and IAFF Local 5067 (the Unions) assert essentially the same arguments.
  • They contend that the statutory definition of “fire fighter” is ambiguous on its face because it contains language allowing for differing interpretations of its terms when “context requires a different interpretation.”
  • The Unions argue that in this context only full-time, career fire fighters are “fire fighters” entitled by the statutes to collectively bargain.
  • The Campbell County Joint Powers Board, Teton County, and the Town of Jackson argue that the statute is unambiguous and that volunteer and pool fire fighters (in the case of JHFD) are “paid members” of their respective fire departments.
  • In Campbell County, the volunteer fire fighters are paid on an hourly basis for responding to calls and attending meetings. In addition, they receive many other benefits to compensate them for their work.
  • Similarly, Teton County pays volunteers on an hourly basis when they are on call and provides numerous other benefits as well.
  • Teton County pays pool fire fighters hourly wages, overtime, and other benefits.
  • Thus, CCFD and JHFD volunteer and JHFD pool fire fighters are “paid members” of their respective fire departments.
  • The definition of “fire fighters” as “paid members of any regularly constituted fire department” is unambiguous and includes volunteer and pool fire fighters in Campbell and Teton counties.

With that, the court upheld trial court decisions in favor of the municipalities. Here is a copy of the decision: IAFF Local 5058 v Campbell County

A few caveats on the decision are in order. First of all, the decision will have no impact beyond the state of Wyoming. It is an interpretation of a Wyoming collective bargaining statute. In addition, that statute could be amended by the state legislature to reverse the decision if the legislature so decides.

Second, despite being referred to as volunteers, the “volunteer firefighters” in both Campbell County and Jackson Hole are actually part-time paid employees. They are volunteers to the extent that they do not work scheduled shifts and may choose to respond when available. They are not volunteers in the sense they are unpaid. The decision cannot be read to apply to volunteers who receive no compensation. However, a legitimate question could be asked: could a municipality pay a group of unpaid volunteers a nominal amount to become volunteer firefighters in order to thwart career personnel from organizing?

Third, the opinion gives minimal consideration to a central issue in collective bargaining: that an appropriate bargaining unit consist of those with a “community of interest” with regard to “wages, hours and other terms and conditions of employment.” While career, part-time and volunteer firefighters no doubt share a community of interest over many issues, few people familiar with the fire service would contend that career and volunteer firefighters share a “community of interests” when it comes to “wages, hours and other terms and conditions of employment.” The court simply breezed past that point:

  • The Unions claim that an interpretation of the statute that includes volunteers as fire fighters who can collectively bargain in the same unit as full-time, career fire fighters would disregard the discrepancy in interests between the full-time and volunteer members of their departments.
  • However, the record belies this contention and illustrates that the full-time and volunteer fire fighters have numerous common interests.
  • Staffing, safety, and communication are all topics that apply to both full-time, career fire fighters and volunteer fire fighters.
  • Similarly, according to Mr. Tobey, president of IAFF Local 5067, the intent of the proposed collective bargaining agreement in Teton County was to “ensure public safety, firefighter safety, and utilize best practices for the operation of the department.”
  • He also asserted that “equitable working conditions” was another concern of IAFF Local 5067.
  • Again, these topics are of concern to all fire fighters, not just full-time, career fire fighters.
  • Thus, we cannot conclude that the interests of the fulltime and volunteer fire fighters provide a “context” that “requires a different interpretation.”

Ironically, the finding of a “community of interest” between groups who are economically competing with one another could doom the formation of a union capable of protecting the interests of the career firefighters. Then again, perhaps that was the goal of the decision.

The next move will be up to the Wyoming legislature.

 

 

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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