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In Brooklyn Park, tight budget spurs unionization effort

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Brooklyn Park firefighters
Brooklyn Park Fire Chief Ken Prillaman photographed at one of the city's fire stations Friday, Nov. 18, 2011.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Brooklyn Park could become the first city in Minnesota with a union representing its part-time firefighters. If the unionization effort succeeds, it probably won't be the last.

In cash-strapped cities around the state, previously non-unionized workers are turning to organized labor to protect them from future budget cuts. But in Brooklyn Park, the city is fighting back.

The number of city employees trying to unionize in Minnesota has been rising in the past few years and what happens in this northern Minneapolis suburb could signal whether that will continue or even accelerate as budget-short local governments struggle to match revenue with expenses.

"Our approach to that is not that we're anti-union or that we're pro-union," City Manager Jamie Verbrugge said. "We, at this point, have a disagreement on whether (the firefighters) are eligible to form a union based on Minnesota public employee labor relations law."

In most cases, you need to work at least 14 hours a week to join a public employee union in Minnesota. About a quarter of Brooklyn Park's 80 part-time firefighters meet that threshold. The Minnesota Bureau of Mediation Services will have to rule on whether those 20 can legally form a union. A hearing on the issue has not yet been scheduled.

The vast majority of Minnesota fire departments are part-time operations, and Brooklyn Park has the busiest one in the state. It is on track to exceed 7,400 calls for service this year, many of them medical emergencies. The firefighters work shifts, allowing the fire station to be staffed 24 hours a day. At $2.7 million a year, the fire department consumes about 7 percent of Brooklyn Park's budget.

Brooklyn Park firefighters and labor union organiz
AFSCME Council 5's organizing director Eric Lehto's office includes maps on the wall that highlight metro area communities where public employees have or have not been organized.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

"The city's getting a heck of a great bargain here of full-time coverage at part-time wages," said Kevin Bruch, one of the firefighters trying to organize the union.

The firefighters have a pension plan, but they get no health insurance, no sick days and no paid vacation. The wages are comparable to similar departments in the area, but nobody is getting rich fighting fires part time.

"Our top pay is $14.65 an hour," Bruch said, "to go out there and lay your life on the line."

Bruch thinks a union could negotiate better compensation and give rank and file firefighters more influence over decisions at the department. But all that could result in increased costs for the city.

Brooklyn Park's budget has been hammered by the housing crisis. By the end of 2013, close to 20 percent of the houses in town will have gone through foreclosure. The city's residential tax base has plummeted 37 percent since 2007.

In response, the city has laid off workers and frozen wages. The city's police supervisors union demanded a 1.5 percent pay increase this year, but a state arbitrator sided with the city. The ruling said Brooklyn Park simply "does not have the ability to pay for the Union's objectives."

The city is currently in arbitration with its other police union. Its arguments are the same.

Brooklyn Park firefighters and labor union organiz
Eric Lehto is organizing director of the AFSCME Council 5 union, an organization that helps public employees unionize.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

"I think in this economic time, everybody is really doing what they can to protect their interests, which is understandable," Verbrugge said. "For me, it's making sure that I protect the interests of 75,000 people of Brooklyn Park, who've invested here, who are experiencing economic hardship."

Cities around Minnesota have seen their budgets crunched by the lackluster economy and cuts in state aid. That has meant existing unions have had to make contract concessions. But, on the other hand, it may provide impetus for public employee unions' organizing efforts.

"When there's a restriction of money going into the city coffers or the county coffers, the only place they have to make up that money is by laying off employees and paying them less," said Eric Lehto, organizing director for the union AFSCME Council 5, "The only real response the workers have is to unionize."

So far in 2011, unions have filed petitions to organize 90 city employees around the state, the largest number since 2007, according to the Bureau of Mediation Services.