The city of Brainerd violated state labor laws by restructuring the paid fire department and dissolving the union, the state Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.
City administrators said the move to use part-time firefighters without benefits was made to cut costs and was within the right to “inherent managerial policy” under the state’s Public Employment Labor Relations Act. The Supreme Court, however, said those managerial rights do not provide immunity from the law’s prohibition on “interfering with the existence of an employee organization.”
“Therefore, we reject the city’s argument that a public employer has an inherent managerial authority to commit an unfair labor practice,” the opinion said.
Justice David Lillehaug wrote the 16-page majority opinion on behalf of Justices Margaret Chutich, Natalie Hudson, Anne McKeig and Paul Thissen. Chief Justice Lorie Gildea wrote a dissenting opinion that was joined by Justice G. Barry Anderson.
Lawyer Marshall Tanick, who represented the Firefighters Union Local 4725, called the case “extremely important” because of its effect on public unions and municipalities.
“It upholds the sanctity of contracts in the workplace for labor unions and all working people for that matter,” Tanick said. The case deals only with public unions, but Tanick said the decision is instructive for other unions.
Pamela VanderWiel, who represented the city, was disappointed with the decision but said the court’s ruling provided needed clarity on this aspect of labor law.
“It has been very hard to figure out what an employer is permitted to do” under the managerial policy provision, she said.
In 2010, the city attempted to restructure the department to save money by eliminating the full-time paid union firefighters and replacing them with part-time, on-call firefighters who wouldn’t receive benefits. The Brainerd City Council initially approved the plan, then rescinded it because of public opposition.
In January 2015, the city and the union signed a new three-year collective bargaining agreement that covered the five full-time fire equipment operator positions. The pact didn’t cover the part-time on-call firefighters.
Six months later, the city wanted to restructure the department to save money by eliminating the union positions and laying off the full-time firefighters. In September 2015, the City Council agreed to replace the full-time union members with part-time, on-call firefighters. The council also added a full-time managerial position of assistant chief.
A few months later, the local sued, alleging unfair labor practices that interfered with the existence of a labor union.
The city agreed that its action had dissolved the union. The city argued its actions were “authorized” by a portion of the labor act that deals with “matters of inherent managerial policy” that include “the organizational structure, selection of personnel, and direction and the number of personnel,” according to the court documents.
The district court said the city’s actions were legal. The state Court of Appeals reversed that decision, saying the city violated the contract with the union by “unilaterally” eliminating all the full-time positions, essentially dissolving the union.
The city argued to the state Supreme Court that acts performed under the “inherent managerial policy” cannot be considered unfair labor practices.
Lillehaug’s ruling said the city’s actions were inherent managerial policy. But the court said that is not the end of the legal analysis. The right to manage does not diminish provisions in the law that “explicitly prohibit a public employer from engaging” in unfair labor practices, he wrote.
In the dissent, Gildea said the majority’s conclusion that “the city cannot implement its decision because it is an unfair labor practice nullifies the city’s inherent management discretion.”
Instead, she would require that a labor practice could be considered unfair only if it were motivated by anti-union animus. “With this interpretation, if a city uses its inherent management authority as a disguise for anti-union animus, the decision would be an unfair labor practice,” she wrote.
The case will now return to the district court to decide a remedy. Tanick said the firefighters will seek reinstatement and back pay.
VanderWiel said she would talk to her clients about a possible remedy, but she said the city has been pleased with the current structure that uses part-time, on-call firefighters. The lower court has discretion to “fashion a remedy as justice requires,” she said. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all sort of thing.”
Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747 Twitter: @rochelleolson