Court Upholds Injunction Against Laying Off Firefighters

The “duration” clause in the collective bargaining agreement between the City of Pontiac, Michigan and the Pontiac Fire Fighters Union, Local 376, provided that the contract was in effect from July 1, 2002 through June 30, 2004, and was “extended automatically thereafter on a daily basis until a new contract is negotiated or ordered.” The contract specifically provided that “during the duration of the Agreement, there will be no layoff of bargaining unit personnel.”

In 2005 and 2006, the City experienced a financial crisis, and proposed to lay off 28 firefighters or firefighter/paramedics. Local 376 filed a grievance, an unfair labor practice charge with the Michigan Employment Relations Commission, and a request for an injunction prohibiting the layoffs pending resolution of “all bargaining, contract and statutory procedures.”

The Michigan Court of Appeals upheld a trial court’s decision issuing an injunction forbidding the layoffs. The City argued that the injunction was inappropriate because Local 376 failed to meet its burden of proving that “irreparable injury” – a condition necessary for any injunction – would result if the injunction were not issued. Quoting from the trial court’s opinion, the Court noted that “violation of one of the terms of the collective bargaining agreement impacts Local 376’s collective bargaining rights. Laying off firefighters would result in about 25% of the City’s existing firefighters losing their jobs, salary and benefits, and create a current hardship that cannot be compensated even if a subsequent arbitration decision would award those laid off a reinstatement of their positions and back wages.

“In addition, Local 376 may be irreparably harmed since a reduction in the workforce and the closing of several City fire stations would result in a significant increased risk of harm for the remaining firefighters. Fewer firefighters would be available to respond to fires and the closing of stations caused by the layoff would result in the firefighters having to cover a larger territory. The remaining firefighters would thus not be able to respond as quickly as they used to which means that they would be faced with fires that have increased in intensity or size and as a result are more dangerous. The Court finds that all of the foregoing reasons support a finding of irreparable harm to Plaintiff if an injunction should not be issued.”

The City also argued that the injunction was inappropriate because Local 376 had not proven that it had a reasonable likelihood of prevailing on the merits of the underlying dispute. Again, the Court disagreed with the City.
The Court held that “the Union is likely to prevail on the merits. The CBA provides: ‘During the duration of the Agreement, there will be no layoff of bargaining unit personnel.’ The CBA had not expired. Rather, the CBA was ‘extended automatically on a daily basis until a new contract is negotiated or ordered.’

“When the terms of a contract are unambiguous, their construction is for this Court to determine as a matter of law. Here, the language of the CBA is unambiguous because there are no terms that irreconcilably conflict with one another. This CBA provision flatly prohibits layoffs: The Union is therefore likely to prevail on the merits of its breach of contract claim.”

The City next argued that policy decisions whether to lay off employees were management rights that were not mandatory subjects of bargaining, and that thus Local 376 would be unlikely to prevail in its unfair labor practice complaint. The Court noted that the City’s argument only dealt with the unfair labor charge, and not with the claim of a contractual violation, and thus would not make the injunction invalid. That said, the Court also concluded that while the decision to lay off employees might be a management right, the impact of layoff decisions on employees was mandatory for bargaining to the extent a layoff related to workload and safety. The Court found no difficulty in concluding that the layoff of 25% of the City’s firefighters would impact workload and safety.

Pontiac Fire Fighters Union, Local 376 v. City of Pontiac, 2006 WL 3459069 (Mich.App. 2006).

This article appears in the January 2007 issue