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Appeals court sides with firefighters union in Brainerd dispute

Brainerd Fire Department’s former full-time equipment operators Mark Turner (left), Cory Zeien, Kevin Tengwall, Kurt Doree and Lance Davis are seen in a 2013 photo wearing their pink T-shirts to support the fight against breast cancer and other types of cancer. Brainerd Dispatch file photo

ST. PAUL — Brainerd city officials committed unfair labor practices by eliminating full-time firefighter positions in 2015, moves that led to to the elimination of the firefighters union, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled.

In a published opinion posted Monday, Oct. 8, the appeals court reversed part of a Crow Wing County District Court decision that had sided with the city in a lawsuit filed by the Firefighters Union Local 4725 and union President Mark Turner.

In the suit, the union requested a number of things, including job reinstatement for full-time firefighters, damages in excess of $50,000, the chance to seek punitive damages and reimbursement of legal fees. The appeals court decision did not specify which relief requests the district court must grant, instead ordering it to “fashion an appropriate remedy.”

In the lawsuit, the union and Turner asserted the city violated the Minnesota Public Employment Labor Relations Act with its decision to restructure the fire department in September 2015, eliminating five full-time positions and using only paid on-call firefighters. This decision, the union argued, effectively dissolved the union that had reached a contract with the city just months earlier.

The appeals court found neither the union nor the city disputed the facts of the case -- the city did eliminate the positions of the five full-time firefighters, which in turn dissolved the union. But, the city stated on appeal, decisions in previous related cases support the argument the reorganization was “an act of inherent managerial policy, and thus, is not an unfair labor practice.”

“We conclude that it is not an ‘inherent managerial policy’ for an employer to reorganize a department when the reorganization interferes with the existence and administration of a union,”  Judge Roger Klaphake wrote.

While siding with the union on the unfair labor practices claim, the appeals court affirmed the district court decision to grant summary judgment to the city of Brainerd on the remaining matters. The appellate judges ruled the city did not violate the law concerning city charters, and found the union failed to produce enough evidence for its retaliation claims.

The appeals court found neither the union nor the city disputed the facts of the case—the city did eliminate the positions of the five full-time firefighters, which in turn dissolved the union. But, the city stated on appeal, decisions in previous related cases support the argument the reorganization was "an act of inherent managerial policy, and thus, is not an unfair labor practice."

The city cited state law, which says "a public employer is not required to meet and negotiate on matters of inherent managerial policy," and pointed to two cases involving restructuring of public school employees supporting its position. In those cases—one in which an assistant principal position was eliminated, and another in which the positions of seven union employees were axed—different courts determined the employers acted properly within state law.

What separates those cases from the Brainerd Fire Department case, however, was those unions continued operation.

"We conclude that it is not an 'inherent managerial policy' for an employer to reorganize a department when the reorganization interferes with the existence and administration of a union," Klaphake wrote.

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