OGDENSBURG — In what’s shaping up to be a long, hard-fought legal battle on both sides, the city is now taking the fire union to court.
The city on Thursday filed suit against the firefighters’ union in state Supreme Court in St. Lawrence County for a permanent stay of arbitration — a form of alternative dispute resolution used as a way to resolve issues outside the court system.
Union President Jason T. Bouchard said Thursday the union has no comment yet as the suit had not been served to its legal team. He said the city’s suit was anticipated, but called it a “classic deflection tactic.”
Ogdensburg Professional Firefighters, Local 1799, took the city to court last month over what the union claims is a violation of its collective bargaining agreement. The city’s 2021 budget, passed by City Council on Dec. 9, eliminated seven firefighter positions, dipping below the 24-person minimum agreed to in the collective bargaining agreement provision of the union’s six-year contract.
Once the budget was passed, City Manager and Fire Chief Stephen P. Jellie offered eligible firefighters $25,000 as an incentive to retire in order to eliminate the positions through attrition — when a position isn’t filled once vacated as it no longer exists. Five firefighters were issued layoff notices because, at the time, one fire captain opted to retire. Two more have since opted to retire, reducing the number of laid-off firefighters from five to three as one has been reinstated and another is under “disciplinary review.”
But a state Supreme Court judge earlier this week denied the union’s request to reinstate the laid-off firefighters. Judge Mary M. Farley’s ruling issued Monday essentially ended the union’s suit in court as the next step was to go before an arbitrator.
Last month, the union filed a grievance with the city asking to go before an arbitrator to resolve the ongoing dispute over minimum staffing within the fire department.
Mr. Jellie denied the grievance on Christmas Eve, prompting the union to serve the city with a demand for arbitration four days later.
The city’s suit claims the minimum staffing argument is not arbitrable.
The city claims the union’s argument that the minimum staffing clause in the contract is a job security provision, which is not enforceable or arbitrable because it would violate public policy. Citing extensive case law, the city contends any job security clause would require the city to explicitly waive any right to reduce staff for budgetary or economic reasons, which it did not do in its contract with firefighters.
Mr. Jellie has previously said the current union contract was “hastily” agreed upon by the 2019 City Council. The city has asserted many times, and again in its petition, that the agreement was negotiated during a period of severe financial distress for the city. The contract was agreed upon in November 2019 — pre COVID-19 pandemic — but Mr. Jellie has said the city was in financial distress well before the pandemic. The pandemic has only “exacerbated” the situations, according to the petition.
Prior to the city filing suit, Mr. Jellie extended two contract offers to the union, both of which were unanimously denied by its members. The union claims there’s no reason to accept a new contract offer from the city as members are already in a contract with the city. The current contract went into effect Jan. 1, 2020, and is set to expire on Dec. 31, 2025.
In an email to media Thursday, Mr. Jellie said he and city officials “will continue to encourage” the union to “resolve this matter collectively, in the interest of city and in the interest of reinstating the three remaining laid off firefighters.”