The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled the city of Brainerd violated state labor laws by restructuring the paid fire department and dissolving the union, resulting in five full-time equipment operators losing their jobs.
The Supreme Court affirmed the ruling of the Court of Appeals Wednesday, Oct. 9, reversing the district court’s decision, which granted summary judgment in favor of Brainerd. A court grants summary judgment when it finds the facts of a case lack merit, therefore eliminating the need for a trial. The Supreme Court’s decision stated the city engaged in unfair labor practices prohibited by two Minnesota statutes by undergoing a department reorganization that resulted in the dissolution of a bargaining unit and by interfering with the existence of an employee organization, which constituted a prohibited unfair labor practice.
The Firefighters Union Local 4725 -- consisting of the former Brainerd full-time equipment operators Mark Turner, Cory Zeien, Kevin Tengwall, Kurt Doree and Lance Davis -- filed the lawsuit against the city in January 2016 in Crow Wing County District Court, claiming it engaged in unfair labor practices under the Public Employment Labor Relations Act.
With the reversal by the Minnesota Supreme Court, the case will go back to the Brainerd district courtroom for a decision on a remedy.
Marshall Tanick, the Twin Cities labor law attorney who represented the union, is pleased with the decision and said the ideal remedy would be for the city to reinstate the union and the firefighters and to offer the individuals back pay and back benefits, including “substantial pension benefits.”
He added this case is important because the Supreme Court’s decision emphasizes the importance of labor union contracts and how they cannot be eliminated in the middle of the contract’s duration.
Although the case deals with one public sector union, it also has important private sector and nonunion implications as well, he added, as it puts restraints on employers from changing the terms of conditions of employment.
Pamela VanderWiel, who represented the city, said the decision is disappointing and the city does not agree, but will move forward to the best of its ability with the decision made at the district court level.
She added the city’s main concern throughout the case is that it provides first-class emergency services to its residents.
“And so it (the city) doesn’t anticipate that this is going to, in any way, diminish the level of service — the fire or emergency services —that it provides to the residents,” she said. “And it’s going to do whatever it can to make sure that it’s uninterrupted.”