Justices rule for unionized firefighters in Brainerd.


Byline: Minnesota Lawyer

The interests of unionized public employees trumped the interests of managerial policymakers at the Minnesota Supreme Court on Oct. 9.

The city of Brainerd can't reorganize its fire department in a way that eliminates the jobs of all the members of the International Association of Firefighters, Local 4725, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-2 decision.

Justice David Lillehaug wrote the opinion for the majority, and Chief Justice Lori Gildea dissented, joined by Justice G. Barry Anderson, in Firefighters Union Local 4725, et al. v. City of Brainerd.

The court said that the city committed an unfair labor practice by interfering with the existence of the local, even if its actions were pursuant to the city's inherent managerial policy because the purpose was to save money. The opinion affirms the Court of Appeals, although with a different analysis.

Plaintiffs' attorney Marshall Tanick said the case is important as the first Supreme Court interpretation of the Public Employment Labor Relations Act (PELRA) but also has implications for private sector labor unions in that employers cannot change existing labor agreements. "Labor unions have had so many unfavorable results, this is heartening," he said.

Tanick said the plaintiffs seek reinstatement, back pay and back benefits. It's ironic that the actions the city took for budgetary reasons are going to cost it a lot more in the end, he added.

City eliminated the union local

The case analyzes two PELRA provisions. One is the unfair labor practices provision, Minn. Stat. 179A.13, subd. 2(2), and the other is the inherent managerial policy provision, Minn. Stat. 179A.07, subd. 1.

The city's and the union's conflict dates back to 2015, when the city and the local executed a three-year collective bargaining agreement that covered the five unionized full-time fire equipment operator positions but not the nonunion part-time paid on-call firefighters, who receive nominal compensation and limited benefits.

Subsequently, the city decided to restructure the fire department by eliminating the full-time positions, using part-time firefighters with a full-time assistant fire chief position. The union full-time employees lost their jobs and were replaced by nonunion on-call firefighters. The assistant chief position was filled by one of the on-call firefighters and not one of the laid-off full-time employees.

As Lillehaug clearly pointed out, the city not only acknowledged but...

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