Firefighters’ Union Unable To Block Layoffs

The collective bargaining agreement between the City of Pontiac, Michigan and Local 376 of the International Association of Fire Fighters expired on June 30, 2004. The preexisting contract continued to cover the parties’ relationship afterwards because, under its own terms, the agreement was automatically extended until a new contract was negotiated.

In 2005 and 2006, the City faced serious budget shortfalls that it sought to address in part by laying off 28 firefighters. Local 376 filed a lawsuit alleging that the layoffs violated both the collective bargaining agreement and the City’s obligation to collectively bargain over changes in mandatory subjects of bargaining. Local 376 sought a preliminary injunction to stop the layoffs.

In a significant decision, the Michigan Supreme Court sided with the City. The Court began by finding that Local 376 was unable to show that the layoffs would cause irreparable injury to its members. The Court found that any claim of financial harm “is not irreparable and not the proper subject of injunctive relief. There exists an adequate legal remedy for laid-off firefighters. If the layoffs violated the contract or constituted an unfair labor practice, the Michigan Unemployment Relations Commission or a grievance arbitrator can award back pay, order reinstatement, or provide other remedy to make the laid-off firefighters whole.”

Local 376 also argued that the layoffs would cause its members an irreparable injury because the layoffs would “deplete the number of available firefighters, which would increase the remaining firefighters’ workload and lengthen their response time, which in turn would require firefighters to fight larger, more intense, and more dangerous fires. Thus, firefighter safety would be jeopardized.”

The Court was unconvinced, holding that Local 376’s argument that staffing decisions might impact firefighter safety “is appealing as a general proposition, but upon closer scrutiny, Local 376 alleged nothing more than an apprehension of future injury or damage. We do not trivialize the dangers accompanying firefighting. However, because firefighting is a dangerous job, every managerial decision in the abstract might touch on a safety issue. The mere apprehension of reduced safety by the union is insufficient grounds for a Court to grant an injunction.

“Even if Local 376 initially succeeded in demonstrating particularized, irreparable harm, it failed to carry its burden of proof in the face of contrary evidence submitted by the City that refuted Local 376’s allegations. For instance, in response to Local 376’s allegation that the number of firefighter personnel at a fire scene would be limited and reduced to unsafe levels, the Fire Chief stated that the number of firefighters present at a scene would not be reduced by the layoffs and the number of firefighters in each rig would increase from three or four to four. Local 376’s nonspecific allegations of irreparable harm were refuted by the more specific sworn statements of the Fire Chief.”

Pontiac Fire Fighters Union, Local 376 v. City of Pontiac, 753 N.W.2d 595 (Mich. 2008).

NOTE: In a case issued on the same day, the Michigan Supreme Court sent back for trial a lawsuit challenging layoffs in the Detroit Fire Department. The Court found that to block the layoffs, the firefighters’ union had to show that a restructuring plan and layoffs were “inextricably intertwined with safety” through “conclusive” and “specific, detailed” evidence.

This article appears in the October 2008 issue