Arbitrator Orders Laid Off St. Albans Firefighters Reinstated

When I first started this blog my intent was to offer fire law news and information with a perspective that went beyond just the superficial headlines that other web sites provide. In particular I wanted to give firefighters the rest of the story on cases and the law as it relates to the fire service.

A case out of St. Albans, Vermont gives us that opportunity to discuss how arbitrators (and courts for that matter) interpret conflicting terms in a collective bargaining agreement.

It seems like every other story in this blog involves the tough economic times, and how cities and towns are seeking to reduce their financial burden by reducing fire department staffing levels. The St. Albans case involves two fire departments – one from the City of St. Albans and the other from the Town of St. Albans.

As a part of a cost-cutting strategy, the City of St. Albans decided to eliminate all non-officer positions in the Fire Department, lay off three career firefighters, and replace them with volunteers from the Town of St. Albans Fire Department. The moved was expected to save the city roughly $300,000, although the figure is disputed. As part of the cost cutting move the City entered an agreement with the town to compensate the town between $100,000 and $125,000 per quarter for services rendered by the volunteer firefighters.

The legal problem that arose was that Article 1, Section B of the collective bargaining agreement between the City of St. Albans and the firefighters union stated:

 “No one outside the bargaining unit shall perform work normally done by those employees within the unit, and that job description is protected under this agreement, except when the City has exhausted its present working force then it may utilize part-time employees.”

In labor law, such a provision is intended to prevent an employer from "contracting out" bargaining unit work to non-bargaining unit workers. The city denied breaching Article 1 Section B, claiming that the management rights clause in the collective bargaining agreement gave the city the right to “purchase goods and services” and “make reductions in workforce”. The union grieved the layoffs, and the matter was submitted to arbitrator Lawrence Katz for consideration.

The challenge was that the two provisions seem to conflict. The city had the right to make reductions in the work force, but had agreed not to contract out work that was being performed by union members.

When ever two contractual provision conflict the initial duty of the arbitrator is to try to find a way to give each provision weight without invalidating the other. In other words, the arbitrator should try to find an interpretation for each provision that will give meaning to the language in each.

Katz concluded that the way to do that to rule that the city has the right to reduce the size of the force, it cannot do so in such a way as to replace the firefighters with non-bargaining unit employees. In other words, if the city could simply eliminate the positions without needing replacements it was free to do so. However, it could not use volunteers to replace the laid off firefighters without violating the collective bargaining agreement.

On August 26, 2010 Katz ordered the city to reinstate the three laid off firefighters with backpay, benefits and seniority. City officials are claiming foul, arguing that Katz “emasculated” the management rights clause.

The city has 30 days to appeal Katz’s decision.

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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