MN Supreme Court: Brainerd violated labor law in firefighter restructure

A firetruck waits at the Brainerd Fire Department, Sept. 18, 2015.
Dan Kraker | MPR News file

The Minnesota Supreme Court has sided with a firefighters’ union in a dispute with the city of Brainerd over its move to a part-time department.

The Firefighters Union Local 4725 sued Brainerd after the city restructured its fire department in 2015 and eliminated all union positions. Instead, the city switched to part-time, on-call firefighters as a cost-cutting move.

The union argued that action violated the three-year collective bargaining agreement the city had signed with five fire equipment operators, who were laid off.

A district court decided that the city's actions were legal, but an appeals court overturned that part of the ruling.

In an opinion filed Wednesday and written by Justice David Lillehaug, the state’s high court agreed that the city's action was an unfair labor practice of interfering with the existence of an employee union.

Attorney Marshall Tanick, who represented the union, said the ruling could have a wider impact on other labor cases. He said it likely will deter governmental bodies — and maybe private companies as well — from eliminating a union in the middle of a contract.

“I think it sends a strong message that employers do not blatantly and brazenly change the rights of employees, especially if they have some kind of contractual relationship with those employees,” he said.

Tanick said the ruling directed the lower court to provide appropriate relief for the firefighters, which he said could mean reinstating them or paying back or future pay and benefits.

Pamela VanderWiel, an attorney representing the city of Brainerd, said they are disappointed by the ruling.

VanderWiel said the court’s decision will create added uncertainty around labor law. The city had argued its actions were within its legal discretion to make managerial decisions essential to its operations.

“I think with every subsequent decision we’ve gotten, the law has gotten more confusing, rather than easier to apply,” she said.

VanderWiel said the city hasn’t had time yet to discuss its next steps. She said the part-time fire department has been operating for almost five years.

“It’s been working for the city really well,” she said. “It would be a real shame to disrupt all that.”

Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea wrote a dissenting opinion, joined by Justice G. Barry Anderson. She argued in part that the restructuring wasn’t an unfair labor practice because it wasn’t prompted by anti-union hostility.

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