Firefighter’s Union Organizing Constitutionally Protected

Paul Blangsted worked for the Snowmass-Wildcat Fire Protection District in Colorado. Blangsted was instrumental in organizing, forming, and participating in the local firefighter association, which was just in the process of forming. Blangsted’s purposes for forming the union were to become eligible for benefits such as lower co-insurance rates, provide training to union members on things such as hazardous materials, and organized events such as a smoke detector battery drive and a smoke detector giveaway.

The District terminated Blangsted, allegedly for an act of vandalism. The alleged vandalism occurred at the Snowmass Club, an exclusive, private country club that allowed the District’s firefighters complimentary use of their facilities. Apparently the Club had posted a sign which indicated that the racquetball courts would soon be closed. One night, as he was leaving the Club after a Union meeting, Blangsted allegedly wrote on the poster “This sucks, don’t do it.” The Club was very upset by this action and suspended the District’s complimentary use of the facilities.

After he was terminated, Blangsted sued the District alleging that his termination was in retaliation for his union organizing, which was protected under the First Amendment’s guarantees of the right of “free association.” When a jury returned a verdict in Blangsted’s favor and assessed punitive damages against the Fire Chief, the District filed a motion with the Court to overturn the jury’s verdict.

The heart of the District’s motion was that union organizing in the public sector is not necessarily protected by the First Amendment. The District contended that one would have to analyze exactly what organizing activities or speech the union engaged in to determine whether constitutional protection should apply.

The Court was reluctant to go down the road suggested by the District: “The evidence as presented was that Blangsted engaged in union organizing activities, the Fire Chief allegedly was anti-union, and there is no real dispute concerning the particular union activities. Engaging in a public concern analysis of a freedom of association claim based on general activity to form a union would inevitably require a determination of the worth of a particular union – a determination I do not think is in the province of the court system. Indeed, the right to form and participate in a labor union is not based on whether those exterior to the employment context view the union as good or bad but rather as a right of association fully protected by the First Amendment.”

The Court found that there was sufficient evidence to show that the Fire Chief “harbored anti-union animus including that the Chief made statements to a captain regarding his beliefs about the union and that the Chief was visibly angry when he spoke to another individual about participation in the union. A reasonable jury could infer from this that the Chief was anti-union and that he terminated Blangsted based on this animus.”

The District also argued that there was not a sufficient basis to sustain the jury’s award of punitive damages to Blangsted. Once again, the Court disagreed. The Court noted that Blangsted presented evidence that the Chief “knew it was illegal to terminate someone based on his union activities. A reasonable jury could infer from this that the District acted with reckless disregard for Blangsted’s constitutional rights.”

Blangsted v. Snowmass-Wildcat Fire Protection District, 2008 WL 4411440 (D.Colo. 2008).

This article appears in the December 2008 issue