THE BUZZ II: Fire Union Hosed

By on March 23, 2016

Contract talks halted, headed for lawsuit.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – “I don’t think it ever crossed my mind,” Keith Gingery admitted to the town council Monday afternoon. “I didn’t even know we paid our volunteers.”

The deputy county attorney explained a speed bump in the town/county negotiations with the newly formed Local 5067 Jackson Hole Professional Firefighters. New revelations caused town and county officials to break off talks with the union formed under the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF). The two sides had met on three occasions and were working toward a new two-year contract for Fire/EMS.

What Gingery had not considered—or anyone else for that matter—was the idea that Local 5067 might be formed illegally, according to state statute, and therefore did not have exclusive brokering power to enter into collective bargaining with elected officials.

At issue is an opinion rendered by the state attorney general back in November while weighing in on a dispute between Campbell County government representatives and the fire union serving Gillette and other muncipalities in that county. According to the AG’s interpretation of state statute, any union formed in Wyoming must include a majority vote of all paid members of any organization. This presumably would include volunteer firefighters who are paid on a per event basis and also receive some pension, benefits and workers’ comp in the event of injury.

In the case of the formation of 5067, only 18 full-time salaried members were allowed to participate in a vote to unionize—14 of those fire fighters opted to join. Both Gingery and town attorney Audrey Cohen-Davis advised the council to sign off on a letter hastily drafted by Gingery Monday morning, which informed the fire union that town and county officials were choosing to walk away from the collective bargaining process.

“We would disagree with that stance and will continue with a lawsuit,” said James Powell, who represents Local 5067. “The union took the same action in Campbell County. This specific situation is unique to Campbell County and, now, it would seem the Town of Jackson and Teton County have joined that challenge. It’s extremely troubling to IAFF national leaders.”

Union attorneys believe the AG’s opinion on the issue is nothing more than that. Cohen-Davis said it seemed to her it was stronger than that. “Sometimes AG opinions are more of the recommending-type language, but this one seems pretty clear: It doesn’t appear that 5067 is the proper entity to enter into exclusive bargaining,” she said.

The union suit is not unexpected. It appears the only way to get clarification on statute is to take the matter to the state supreme court.

“There will be a lawsuit in Campbell County, and probably here in Teton County,” Gingery said. “That might be a good thing. It will help define law. In my opinion it may be best to wait and join this lawsuit and get resolution on this issue. If the court says the AG is wrong we just go back to negotiations.”

If local electeds are simply jumping at a chance to bust the union by walking away from the table, they weren’t tipping their hand. Most elected officials expressed their satisfaction with the bargaining process to date. Gingery pointed out, “You are very close to concluding negotiations; you need to weigh that also.”

But a meeting with union reps scheduled for Tuesday forced electeds to act fast. Town administrator Bob McLaurin said any agreement struck with the union could be legally challenged by volunteer firefighters who felt disenfranchised by the union.

Other unions, like the IAFC, allow for volunteers to join. Powell said volunteers are specifically prohibited from joining the IAFF, according to their charter. “If the volunteers wanted to get together and form a separate organization, they certainly could,” Powell said. “But our intentions are to represent the full time members of Fire/EMS in protecting fair wages, benefits, and working conditions.”

Gingery said he became aware of the situation in Campbell County only after fire chief Willy Watsabaugh sent him a story on it published in the Gillette News Record last Sunday. Gingery called county attorneys in Gillette and decided to advise electeds to halt contract talks.

Powell called the decision disappointing and expected litigation to take one or two years. In the meantime, he promised the usual high level of dedication from Fire/EMS personnel will continue. “We remain committed to our mission of protecting the citizens of Jackson and Teton County,” he said. PJH

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