OGDENSBURG — The ongoing legal battle between the city and its fire union over alleged contract violations boiled down to the question of safety or job security. On Friday, a state Supreme Court judge ruled it was, in fact, job security.
In a ruling handed down Friday afternoon, Judge Mary M. Farley granted the city its request for a permanent stay of arbitration from its fire union.
The city filed suit against Ogdensburg Professional Firefighters, Local 1799, on Feb. 14 in state Supreme Court in St. Lawrence County seeking a permanent stay of arbitration — a form of alternative dispute resolution used as a way to resolve issues outside the court system.
City Manager and Fire Chief Stephen P. Jellie said Friday that the city “appreciates the expedient and affirmative decision from the court,” as the city now looks forward to “continuing with the reorganization and restructuring” of the city fire department.
“Public safety is, and will always be, the most important function of government, at all levels,” Mr. Jellie said. “However, we must continue to assess the overall needs of the community so we can maintain all of our life sustaining services. We sincerely hope this decision from the court ends the major differences between city management and the firefighters union so we can act collectively in the best interest of the city.
“It is now time for IAFF Local 1799 to join those efforts,” he added.
Union President Jason T. Bouchard said Friday that Judge Farley’s decision wasn’t necessarily unexpected. But, he added, “that’s what appeals are for.”
“Our lawyer is confident that as we move to Albany, the decision will be different,” Mr. Bouchard said, adding that the union’s attorney, Nathaniel G. Lambright, will be filing an appeal next week with the state Appellate Division, Third Department, Albany.
The union’s demand for arbitration was filed with the city on Dec. 28 after its grievance was denied on Christmas Eve. The grievance was filed Dec. 10, one day after City Council passed its 2021 budget that reduced the fire department by seven positions — down to 20 firefighters from 27. The union claimed in its grievance that the city’s staffing reduction violated its collective bargaining agreement.
The agreement states the department cannot dip below 24 firefighters.
The demand for arbitration pointed out seven provisions in its six-year contract with the city that city leadership allegedly violated when it laid off five firefighters Jan. 1. Five firefighters were laid off instead of seven due to an eligible firefighter’s retirement and another being out on leave.
On Feb. 12, Mr. Lambright filed a memorandum of law that stated the union had withdrawn five of its seven grievance claims. The two remaining claims reference the department’s minimum shift staffing and how each of those shifts is structured.
In its contract with the city, the union is to have four shifts and each shift must have an officer structure of one assistant fire chief, one captain and the remaining shift members being firefighters. This is article 18, section D, of the contract.
Last month, the city went against this provision of the contract as it was revealed that the assistant fire chief positions would be abolished March 1 and all those holding the title would be demoted to the rank of captain. Mr. Jellie has since brought one bargaining unit member back up to the rank of assistant fire chief.
The contract also states that a minimum of five bargaining unit employees — either four firefighters plus an officer, or three firefighters plus two officers — shall be on duty at all times unless otherwise agreed to in writing. This is article 18, section E, of the contract.
“The reason that the five-man minimum exists is simply for safety,” Mr. Bouchard previously said, adding that the minimum shift staffing provision of the union’s contract with the city is to ensure the department has proper staffing to safely fight fires.
The court declined to see these two contract provisions as such and called the union’s assertion that they are safety clauses and not job security clauses “disingenuous.”
The city has claimed 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 judge agreed.
“... the language of the Agreement, the Demand (for arbitration), and, its prior submissions to this Court all undercut the Union’s argument that the Agreement includes Articles 18 (d) and (e) solely or safety purposes,” Judge Farley wrote. “Neither the word ‘safety’ nor language referencing worker or community safety appears anywhere therein.”
Judge Farley’s decision further hinges on article 18, section C of the contract, which references hazard pay. It states that any union member assigned to a shift with fewer than six assigned members shall receive an extra $3 an hour. They shall receive another $3 an hour for each subsequent reduction to the number of assigned shift members.
The city’s alleged violation of this contract provision was withdrawn from its grievance claim, something the judge recognized.
“If Articles 18 (d) and (e) were solely a safety clause, it belies logic that Article 18 (c) would permit shift staffing or less than five (5) members under any circumstance,” Judge Farley wrote. “Perforce, if Articles 18 (d) and (e) were solely concerned with safety, the Union’s Demand would not consider greater pay for the affected members in any way to be an adequate remedy.”
The city and fire union have been at odds for months over the city’s violation of the union’s minimum staffing agreement, which was done when officials imposed the elimination of seven fire positions. The positions were eliminated when City Council passed its 2021 budget at the end of last year.
The union filed suit against the city in state Supreme Court at the end of last year because of the staffing cuts. The union was requesting a preliminary injunction to forestall the five layoffs. But Judge Farley quickly denied the request.
When oral arguments for the case were heard about two weeks later, the union was requesting the reinstatement of the five laid-off firefighters. The city prevailed when Judge Farley issued another swift denial of the union’s request to reinstate personnel.