For the first time, Minnesota's Bureau of Mediation Services has ruled that some part-time firefighters in the state are eligible to form labor unions.
The ruling, issued this week, allows firefighters in the city of Brooklyn Park to take a unionization vote later this summer. It could spur similar efforts at other fire departments in the metro area.
Brooklyn Park's highest-paid part-time firefighters make less than $15 an hour. They get a pension plan, but do not receive health insurance benefits, sick time or vacation.
Firefighter Kevin Bruch says the unionization effort began when members of the department discovered some other part-time city employees make more money and are eligible for benefits.
"There were firefighters in our department that had lost their full-time jobs and were working without any health benefits whatsoever," Bruch said. "Why couldn't we be offered the same thing?"
Bruch and other firefighters collected enough signatures to trigger a unionization vote. But Brooklyn Park took legal action to block the effort.
"The city didn't have an opposition per se to employees being able to organize," said City Manager Jamie Verbrugge. "The difference in interpretation that the city had was interpreting who qualified as a public employee."
The city argued a 1996 precedent barred part-time firefighters from unionizing. However, this week the Bureau of Mediation Services rejected that argument.
Eric Lehto, organizing director for the AFSCME Council 5 union that wants to represent the firefighters, expects other part-time fire departments will now also consider unionization.
"I do believe that's a part of the reason why this decision is important," Lehto said. "This does now open the door and signal that there are legal avenues through which these employees do unionize."
According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Minnesota has the second-highest concentration of volunteer fire departments in the country. Ninety-seven percent of Minnesota's departments rely chiefly on part-time firefighters.
Most of those workers still won't be eligible to unionize. The ruling says firefighters must work at least 14 hours a week for more than half the year to qualify for collective bargaining rights. Small town fire departments are unlikely to meet that threshold.
But larger departments, especially in the Twin Cities suburbs, can get pretty busy and exceed that workload. While most of their employees are still part-time, many of those departments have transitioned to more intensive staffing models over the last decade. That means they can respond faster to 911 calls, but it also means their part-time firefighters put in more hours than they did previously.
This week's ruling could be a "game changer" in those departments and that is likely to have an effect on city budgets, said Laura Kushner, who tracks employment issues for the League of Minnesota Cities.
"There's pro and cons to everything. It does make the employment relationship more clear, and there's positive aspects of that," Kushner said. "But I have to say that I do think in the long run, costs will likely go up and it could impact staffing levels in those fire departments. So it will be a mixed bag. There will be some good things and there will be some bad things that come out of this."
The city of Brooklyn Park has chosen not to appeal the ruling. A union election will likely happen in July. It's not guaranteed to succeed, however.
The Bureau of Mediation Services has allowed some firefighters who were not part of the initial unionization drive to participate in the vote. And the year-long legal battle may have sapped the momentum of the unionization effort. Regardless of what happens in Brooklyn Park, it's unlikely to be the last Minnesota city to see a unionization effort among its part-time firefighters.