State Supreme Court rules against city of Brainerd in firefighters union case

The dispute dates back to 2015, when the city moved forward with restructuring the fire department from a mix of full-time and paid on-call firefighters to a fully paid on-call department.

Brainerd Fire Department.jpg
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 pink T-shirts to support the fight against breast and other cancers. The Brainerd City Council restructured the fire department from a mix of full-time and paid on-call firefighters to a fully paid on-call department. Brainerd Dispatch file photo

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.”


In 2010, because of a budget deficit following a decrease in both property and tax values and state aid, the city began discussing restructuring the fire department, with talks to eliminate the full-time equipment operator positions.

On July 6, 2015, the Brainerd City Council approved notifying the International Association of Firefighters of the city's intent to move to a paid on-call department. Local 4725 is a local chapter within the association. The city then began negotiations with union representatives on the restructuring.

The intent to move to a paid on-call department came on the heels of the loss of a service contract with Crow Wing Township, the third such loss in a year. In 2014, the city of East Gull Lake and Fort Ripley Township both terminated their service agreements with the department. In a letter dated Dec. 3, 2015, Maple Grove Township informed the city it would be leaving the fire service district, effective Dec. 31, 2016.


In January 2015, the city and the union negotiated and signed a new three-year collective bargaining agreement covering the full-time union firefighters, but not the nonunion paid on-call firefighters. Six months later, however, the city informed the union in writing of its desire to restructure the fire department to save money by eliminating the full-time positions.

On Sept. 21, 2015, the city council approved a resolution restructuring the Brainerd Fire Department from a mix of full-time and paid on-call firefighters to a fully paid on-call department. The resolution passed on a unanimous vote.

Currently, there are two full-time firefighters with the fire department -- Fire Chief Tim Holmes and Deputy Fire Chief/Fire Marshal Dave Cox.

Supreme Court ruling

Supreme Court Justice David Lillehaug wrote the 16-page majority opinion affirming the Court of Appeals decision, on behalf of justices Margaret Chutich, Natalie Hudson, Anne McKeig and Paul Thissen. Chief Justice Lorie Gildea wrote a six-page dissenting opinion joined by Justice G. Barry Anderson.

In the affirming opinion, the city of Brainerd acknowledged its decision to restructure the fire department would interfere with the existence of the union, as the union would disappear if the full-time equipment operator positions were eliminated. The city stated its decision to cut costs by using part-time firefighters without benefits was within its rights under “inherent managerial policy” in the state’s Public Employment Labor Relations Act.

The Supreme Court disagreed and stated the city exercising its managerial authority under the PELRA provisions resulted in an unfair labor practice because it interferes with the existence of an employee organization.

“... The city may not have been legally required to meet and negotiate with the local (union). But section 179A.07, subdivision 1, does not otherwise provide legal immunity from a charge of an unfair labor practice under section 179A.13, subdivision 2(2). For us to recognize such immunity, we would have to read an exception into subdivision 2(2). But we cannot add language to a statute,” the court opinion stated.

Secondly, the Supreme Court analyzed the city’s argument that its decision to dissolve the union is only an unfair labor practice if the decision was based on an unlawful motive, such as anti-union sentiments.


The court ruled it cannot read a motive element into the statute because the Legislature did not include one. The ordinary meaning of “interfere,” the opinion stated, is “to interpose in a way that hinders or impedes.”

“The definition does not include intent or motive elements. And, again, we cannot add words to a statute,” the opinion stated, noting the definition of “interfere” encompasses both intentional and unintentional conduct.

In the dissenting opinion, however, Justice Gildea writes she would interpret “interfering” to mean acting with the intention to interfere with the union, which the city did not.

By using that definition, the dissenting opinion states the two statutes in question could both be taken into account, whereas the majority opinion prioritizes one over the other.

Gildea states the majority prioritizes the protections in Statute 179A.05 (which lists inherent managerial policy matters and exempts such matters from meet and confer requirements) and nullifies the powers in section 179A.013 (which defines as unfair labor practice actions that interfere with the existence of a union).

“Because the majority departs from our obligation to give effect to both statutes, I respectfully dissent,” Gildea writes, noting the way to resolve the conflict and give effect to both statutes is to interpret Statute. 179A.13 to require that for a managerial decision to be considered an unfair labor practice, it must be motivated by anti-union sentiments.

Related Topics: CRIME AND COURTS
Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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