The newly organized union representing Brooklyn Park’s part-time firefighters has sued the city, alleging stall tactics and illegal contact with individual members of the union. The suit also challenges the city’s decision to add 18 full-time firefighters with the goal of eventually cutting the number of part-timers in half. The suit, filed by American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council No. 5 on Dec. 23, accuses the city of failing to negotiate in good faith and failing to bargain directly with the union representing part-timers, which was formed last February.
Meanwhile, the separate union representing full-time firefighters, the International Association of Firefighters Local 5031, has reached a contract with the city.
Rob Miller, president of IAFF local 5031 and a Brooklyn Park fire battalion chief, expressed surprise that AFSCME would object to the addition of full-time positions, especially since the new full-time firefighters were promoted internally from the part-timer ranks.
“Typically, unions look at full-time positions as a good thing for employees all the way around. For a union to be suing the city over adding full-time positions, I am not sure why that is occurring,” Miller said. “IAFF Local 5031 has a very good working relationship with the city.”
The IAFF Local 5031 is also new. It organized in October and has 24 members.
An attorney for AFSCME said the city’s failure to come to the bargaining table in a meaningful way is at the heart of the lawsuit.
“The big issue in the lawsuit is whether this delay is intentional,” said Gregg Corwin, the attorney. “We organized this group of part-timers.
“After we did this, everything slowed down. We couldn’t get them [city officials] to the table to bargain. Then they announce they would be hiring full-time and less part-time. We think they are basically trying to demonstrate they are in control, not us.”
Brooklyn Park city officials declined to comment on pending litigation or negotiations with AFSCME. Negotiations were being conducted through the Bureau of Mediation Services, and no deal had been reached at press time.
The city’s firefighters unionized last February as AFSCME No. 5 and union representatives sent the city a notice of intent to open negotiations in March.
The two sides first met on Sept. 30 for a 45-minute negotiation session. In October, AFSCME learned that the city planned to hire 18 full-time firefighters. The move would gradually shrink the city’s part-time firefighter force from around 72 to about 30 through promotions and attrition, the fire chief has said.
“The decision to add 18 additional full-time firefighters will affect the available hours and bargaining power of the part-time firefighters …” according to the lawsuit.
The city’s full-time firefighters decided to organize separately in October as IAFF Local 5031.
City and AFSCME negotiators have met a handful of times since then, including last Friday.
AFSCME also alleges that the city met directly with individual union members to discuss health insurance without notifying AFSCME.
The suit claims that the fire chief changed eligibility for retirement benefits without notice or negotiation. AFSCME accuses the city of “deliberately delaying” negotiations, trying to wait out the one-year union certification as the exclusive representative of part-time firefighters.
“Defendant has denied Plaintiff the opportunity to meaningfully meet and negotiate,” the suit says.
In October, the Brooklyn Park City Council approved a plan to hire 18 full-time firefighters in 2015, increasing the ranks of full-timers to 26, including management. Chief Ken Prillaman said at the time that the move would save the city $1.5 million over the next decade. The city plans to spend $3.89 million on fire service in 2015.
Prillaman said then that more full-timers would increase efficiency in training, improve firefighter safety and quality of service.
It costs the city $6,000 a year to outfit and train a firefighter, regardless of the number of hours worked. Turnover can be an issue with part-timers, Prillaman said.
“It’s more cost-effective,” Prillaman said of the plan to add full-timers. “I believe strongly in this model. I think it’s in the best interest of the community.”