City to take firefighters union to NY Supreme Court in arbitration case

A court recently reversed a state Supreme Court judge’s ruling that the city can block arbitration in the contract dispute over a “minimum manning” clause


By Craig Fox
Watertown Daily Times

WATERTOWN — Three days after losing a lower court’s ruling, the city is taking steps to take an arbitration case against the city’s firefighters’ union to the state’s highest court.

On Friday, the state Appellate Division, Fourth Department, in Rochester, unanimously reversed a ruling by state Supreme Court Judge James P. McClusky, who determined in January 2018 that the city can block arbitration in the contract dispute.

Three days after losing a lower court’s ruling, the city is taking steps to take an arbitration case against the city’s firefighters’ union to the state’s highest court. (Photo/Watertown Firefighters Benevolent)
Three days after losing a lower court’s ruling, the city is taking steps to take an arbitration case against the city’s firefighters’ union to the state’s highest court. (Photo/Watertown Firefighters Benevolent)

The Appellate Division’s decision allowed an arbitrator to determine if a “minimum manning” clause can continue in the firefighters’ labor contract.

Coming out of a lengthy executive session, Mayor Joseph M. Butler Jr. said on Monday night the City Council agreed to file the appeal with the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court.

During the closed-door meeting, attorney Terry O’Neil — who represents the city in the contract dispute with the firefighters’ union — recommended the city “file for leave to appeal,” Mayor Butler said.

With the highest court granting just a few of those requests, the city must petition the Court of Appeals and convince the seven-judge panel to take the case because the lower court’s decision was unanimous.

“It’s a long shot,” the mayor said.

The minimum manning clause has been the main sticking point during the city’s nearly five-year contract stalemate with the firefighters’ union.

Last January, Judge McClusky ruled in the city’s favor to block arbitration over the minimum manning clause, which requires that 15 firefighters must be on duty at all times.

Mayor Butler said the city is seeking the state’s highest court to end the minimum manning issue, which has been in practice for decades and has had a long-term financial impact on the city.

“This is the finality,” he said. “That’s what this is all about.”

He also stressed that filing the appeal will not cost the city any additional money in legal expenses.

Council members discussed the situation during a conference call with Mr. O’Neil during the executive session. City Manager Rick Finn, City Comptroller James E. Mills and human resources manager Matthew Roy also attended the executive session.

Earlier in the night, Daniel Daugherty, president of the Watertown Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 191, predicted the city would file the appeal.

He believes that an arbitrator will ultimately agree with the union.

“They don’t want it go to an arbitrator because they know they’re going to lose,” he said.

The city has argued that the minimum manning issue resulted in “no layoff clauses” and job security. The firefighters’ union has contended it was a safety issue for 15 firefighters to be on duty at all times.

The five-judge appellate panel concluded on Friday that the lower court “erred in determining that the staffing provisions are job security provisions that are not subject to arbitration.”

If the city doesn’t appeal, the arbitration process would probably be completed by the end of the year. But the appeal means the city “is dragging it on,” possibly until 2020 or 2021, Mr. Daugherty said.

After Friday’s court decision, council members Lisa R. Ruggiero, Ryan Henry-Wilkinson and Cody J. Horbacz said they would oppose the appeal. It’s unclear what was said Monday night in the executive session that changed their minds.

In 2015, the city demoted eight fire department captains, leaving firefighters to cover those duties. The move caused the dispute to become more contentious.

The 68-member union has been without a contract since July 2014.

Copyright 2019 Watertown Daily Times

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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