PLATTSBURGH — The City of Plattsburgh was successful in a recent appeal that will, essentially, dismiss the fire union’s manning clause.
That segment, Section 11 of the Plattsburgh Permanent Firemen’s Association Local 2421 union contract, listed regulations, like a minimum staffing level, and had included language which prevented firefighter layoffs.
Union President Douglas Walker said he was, of course, unhappy with the appellate court’s recent order.
“The shock of losing hasn’t quite set in yet,” Walker said of the July 3 decision.
“It’s a tough loss to have.”
The case partially dates back to June 2017 when a city firefighter retired.
At the time, law database Justia says, the City of Plattsburgh chose not to rehire for that position, citing budgetary constraints.
But the fire union took issue with that.
After a former collective bargaining agreement between the two entities, the fire department’s minimum staffing level had been set at 36 workers.
The municipality’s decision to leave the position vacant had brought their staff number down to 35.
“In the event the city goes below the agreed upon man-power levels,” the manning clause said, “the city agrees to fill such vacancies as soon as possible.”
The union filed a grievance that later went to arbitration and, at the time, the union won their motion to compel arbitration, or further legal action.
CITY WINS APPEAL
But it’s that decision that the city has since appealed.
According to Justia’s report, the City of Plattsburgh felt the manning clause was a matter of job security that wasn’t explicit in its terms, including language like the above, “as soon as possible.”
It’s that vague phrasing that, the city argued, was a violation of public policy and, therefore, both invalid and unenforceable through arbitration, the Justia narrative says.
On the other hand, the Fire Union felt the provision was instead a matter of safety and, therefore, could be enforced via arbitration.
In the end, the appellate court sided with the city, granting the municipality’s appeal for stay arbitration.
“Although these provisions may relate to safety concerns, they also address the issue of job security by mandating a minimum total staffing level and prohibiting layoffs,” the Justia narrative says.
So, it continues, the clause requires the city to fill vacancies to maintain the “agreed upon” staffing levels, but does not include explicit terms to prevent the downward readjustment of that number.
“Accordingly, the dispute is not arbitrable for reasons of public policy,” the Justia report says.
To win this case, Walker said, the union’s manning clause was missing just one word: safety.
“If that was put into it, this would be a moot point,” the union president said. “As a firefighter, it’s not about job security.
“The manning clause, the 36 men — it’s for safety,” he continued. “Safety for the firefighters and safety for the public.”
Currently, the city’s fire department only has 33 firefighters and, Walker said, it’s a worry to not have these firefighters replaced.
Mayor Colin Read said the clause was not a matter of safety.
“Safety is bound by the number of firefighters at work on a given day,” Read said. “That number has stood at a six-person minimum for a decade or more.
“There has been no discussion about lowering that number.”
But, Walker said, that six-person per shift minimum, is too low anyhow.
“On any given day or night, that leaves four people showing up at a fire and that is, in no way, shape or form, safe.”
Walker said his ideal number would be 40 or more firefighters.
“That would give us 10 men on each shift with an eight-man minimum,” he said.
If staffing levels stay at the six-person minimum, even if there were a large fire, the mayor said, a larger staff wouldn’t matter.
“In such cases, we exercise ‘mutual aid’ and have other fire departments come assist our department, as we do for them in return,” he said. “In fact, while another fire department is never the first responder on a city fire, the city fire department is frequently the first responder on fires elsewhere.
“We all work as a team to ensure fires are fought, regardless of whether we draw from 33, 36, or 40 firefighters.”
MEET WITH MAYOR
Walker hopes to meet with Read concerning the manning clause.
“Maybe he will hire to bring us to where we should be,” Walker said. “Until I have that conversation, I can’t say.”
The mayor said he’s open to such a meeting.
“While this ruling may relax one constraint in the staffing of our fire halls, it does not change the fundamental shared concern of both the firefighters and the taxpayers,” he said.
“We all want a professional firefighting force that can deliver good value to taxpayers and expand the services it can provide.”
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