Ogdensburg fire union wins appeal, arbitration with city likely
BY JIMMY LAWTON
North Country This Week
OGDENSBURG — Ogdensburg is likely heading to arbitration with the city’s fire union following a successful appeal of St. Lawrence County Supreme Court Judge Mary Farley’s stay order.
The State Supreme Court Appellate Division Third Judicial Department issued a ruling today (Jan. 13) in favor of the union. The city has 30 day to appeal the decision.At issue is a requirement in the contract which mandates the city to keep five firefighters on a shift and sets forth the number of officers on the each shift.
The panel ruled that safety was at the core of the of the union’s complaint, therefore moving the issue to arbitration.
“Although the provisions at issue here do not expressly mention safety as a reason for the minimum staffing requirements, the safety considerations are self-evident from the nature of the work to be performed – the quintessentially dangerous task of addressing conflagrations that, from time to time, beset the community. It goes without saying that, in such situations, having adequate personnel on hand would be essential to ensure firefighter safety as well as success in fighting the fires. In addition, the parties plainly agreed to arbitrate matters such as this as article 22 of the CBA clearly contemplates arbitration of grievances. Supreme Court therefore erred in staying arbitration here. In view of our decision, respondent's remaining contentions are academic,” the decision says.
International Fire Fighters Association Union President Jason Bouchard said the union was pleased with the decision.
“I’m glad that the court of appeals reaffirms what we’ve been saying all along. That this about fire safety and not about job security,” he said. “We wouldn’t have been pushing the issue otherwise.”
Bouchard added that he is confident and hopeful that arbitration will help ensure that both the city and the union uphold their ends of the contract, which he says the city has failed to do.
The city has 30 days to appeal the decision, but City Manager Stephen Jellie says it’s unlikely the city will pursue that course of action.
Jellie said he has read and respects the decision, but sees it as a mixed bag.
He says while arbitration is eminent he believes the appellate decision still allows the city to determine the officer structure on shifts and the number of total firefighters in the department.
“The CBA ‘does not purport to guarantee a[n] [officer] his or her employment while the CBA is in effect, nor does it prohibit layoffs,” the decision says while citing another ruling. “It also does not protect officers ‘from abolition of their positions due to budget stringencies.”
Jellie said he believes that will be relevant in arbitration.
“In reading the city’s agreement it appears the court is upholding the five-man staffing clause as binding and as a safety clause,” he said. “However the city has the absolute right to determine rank and structure of shifts.”
Other grievances in the original lawsuit included the contract’s requirement for 24 firefighters at the department, however that was withdrawn by the union along with several other complaints.
That means the city could continue to keep the total number of firefighters well below that number and meet the terms of contract’s five-man minimum through extensive overtime.
"From the City’s perspective, the Appellate Court’s decision affirms the City’s authority to establish the overall size and structure of the fire department and is well within its legal right to take the action it has to date, with the exception of reducing the daily minimum staffing," Jellie said in a prepared statement "IAFF Local 1799 originally grieved a total of 7 matters in their complaint and IAFF Local 1799 withdrew 5 of the 7 prior to the decision from the NYS Supreme Court. The two remaining issues of daily minimum staffing and organizational structure are left to be determined. The City is confident it will prevail in both of those matters, and based on today’s decision, the City has already prevailed in the issue of organization size and structure; the City looks forward to the conclusion of the process and will not make any immediate changes from the its current plan."
The battle between the city and fire department has created division between city officials and many of its residents.
The department has undergone massive changes with the total number of firefighters reduced from 27 to fewer than 20 and a change of minimum shift staffing from five to three. While both actions contradict language in the union contract, the city has maintained that the decisions have fallen within the management rights of the city.
The battle has spawned protests, rallies and complaints at city hall. Disputes between the city and union have prompted terminations, resignations and a criminal charge against the mayor following a dispute with a non-retired firefighter.
That charge was eventually dismissed, however that same firefighter is now facing charges for allegedly slashing the tires of the mayor’s vehicle.
Following the initial demand for arbitration, the union unsuccessfully sought a stay order that would have kept staffing at 24 until the matter was resolved.
The city then sought a stay of arbitration, which the city was granted.
Essentially, Farley granted the stay due to the perception that the arbitration was sought for job security issues rather than safety issues.
That ruling has now been overturned.
The union has maintained that’s not the case. The union states that the city has a legal obligation to uphold the existing contract, which is good though 2025.