Chambersburg AGAIN

The ongoing battle between the Borough of Chambersburg and IAFF Local 1813 is back in the fire law news as yet another round has played itself out, this time with the victory going to the Borough.

On December 4, 2014, a three judge panel of the Commonwealth Court concluded that the Pennsylvania State Labor Relations Board mis-interpreted the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Act when it found the Borough guilty of an unfair labor practice.

The case arose when the Borough disciplined several officers of Local 1813 because they threatened to bring (and actually brought) IAFF disciplinary charges against IAFF members from other locals who had been volunteering in one of several volunteer fire companies in Chambersburg. The Borough characterized Local 1813’s conduct as encouraging a “secondary boycott”, something that is prohibited under the Pennsylvania LRA as it is under the NLRA as well.

The PLRB found the Borough guilty of unfair labor practices for disciplining the union officials, and the Borough appealed the decision to the Commonwealth Court. The court agreed with the Borough that Local 1813 had engaged in a secondary boycott and found that the Borough was therefore justified in disciplining the union officials.

Here is a copy of the ruling, which is likely to be appealed (as have virtually all other rulings in this case):CHAMBERSBURG 2014 12 4 Commonwealth Ct

There are a number of problems with the Commonwealth Court’s ruling. It starts with the fact that the two-judge majority just plain got the secondary boycott issue wrong (more on that later).

Notwithstanding the mistake on the secondary boycott issue (which is almost understandable given the complexity of the subject and the fact that the average judge is not an expert in the subtle nuances of labor law), the bigger concern is the fact that the court failed to give the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board due deference when interpreting the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Act.

Whenever a court reviews the decision of an administrative agency that is acting within its legislatively assigned jurisdiction, a basic tenant of administrative law is that great deference be given to the agency’s interpretation. It is totally inappropriate for a reviewing court to substitute its own wisdom for that of an administrative agency when the matter is squarely within the expertise of that agency.

Unlike the secondary boycott issue, this is not an esoteric concept that requires an advanced understanding of labor law. The limited scope of judicial review of agency decisions is a basic principle of jurisprudence that all attorneys and judges know quite well. Oddly, the two judge majority of the Commonwealth Court saw fit to omit any discussion of this scope of review issue, simply referencing scope of review in passing in a footnote.

The dissenting judge, Senior Judge Rochelle S. Friedman, recognized this scope of review issue as the major issue in her formal dissent. She said “the majority has exceeded this court’s scope of review in reversing the determination of the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board”. Quoting from Pennsylvania Supreme Court cases she said:

“Our scope of review is limited. A decision of the Board must be upheld if the Board’s findings are supported by substantial evidence, and if the conclusions drawn from those facts are reasonable, and not capricious, arbitrary[,] or illegal.”

“Further, this court ‘will not lightly substitute its judgment for that of a body selected for its expertise whose experience and expertise make it better qualified than a court of law to weigh facts within its field.’”

No where could the comments about “experience and expertise” be more relevant than when dealing with advanced issues in public sector labor relations!!!

Judge Friedman went on to criticize the majority’s substantive ruling on the secondary boycott issue, and agree with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board that Local 1813 did not engage in a secondary boycott.

As for why I say the court just plain got the secondary boycott issue wrong, the situation in Chambersburg is NOT a secondary boycott if you understand what a secondary boycott actually is. Let’s look at the basic model for a secondary boycott:

Assume we have three factories and three unions:

Factory A employs Union A employees, Factory B employs Union B employees, and Factory C employs Union C employees.

It would be a secondary boycott for Union A to boycott or promote a boycott (work stoppage) at Factory B or Factory C, assuming the other workplaces are unconnected with the labor dispute at Factory A. Plain and simple, Union A can organize a job action at Factory A, but cannot interfere with activities at Factory B or C by picketing or encouraging Unions B or C to take action (sympathy strikes) at their respective factories.

The Commonwealth Court applied this straightforward A, B, C type secondary boycott principle to the Chambersburg case. The problem is, the Chambersburg case is not a typical secondary boycott situation.

In Chambersburg we have employees who belong to the same international union but who are employed in different workplaces. As members of the same international these members are subject to internal union governance. That is not accounted for in the straightforward A, B, C type situation.

Furthermore, in Chambersburg, the union members were not told (or encouraged) to boycott their place of employment (their respective factories). In other words, Union A did not ask members of Unions B and C to boycott Factories B and C. Rather, Union A demanded that members of Union B and C honor the rules set forth by their own union regarding their off-duty NON-WORK related volunteer activity. In other words, Union A asked Union B and Union C employees to not volunteer their time for a non-workplace activity, not boycott work at Factory B or Factory C!

And just to beat a dead horse, the PLRB also rightly concluded that because the volunteer organizations responded to the same incidents as members of Local 1813, the Chambersburg situation was not a “workplace unconnected to the labor dispute”. In other words, the proper analogy would be: Union A demands that members of Union B and Union C stop volunteering to work for free in Factory A. How is that possibly a secondary boycott?

As should be apparent, the Chambersburg situation is actually a much more complicated situation than the Commonwealth Court acknowledges – or perhaps even realizes – exactly the reason why it would best be left to those who deal with complex labor relations issues every day (as opposed to Commonwealth Court judges who will be dealing next with a probate case, a search and seizure decision, or perhaps personal injury case).

Hopefully the wisdom of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will prevail!

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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