A directive from the Mayor of Methuen, Massachusetts removing take-home vehicles from police commanders has been rescinded by an arbitrator.
The evidence presented suggested that take-home vehicles were given to police commanders since at least 2002; however, the parties’ collective bargaining agreement was silent on the subject. Local 17 of the New England Police Benevolent Association argued that this benefit was guaranteed through principles of past practice, while the City alleged that the cars were only a privilege, subject to removal at the discretion of the Mayor.
The case was set against the backdrop of the ongoing fiscal crisis, and a one-year side-letter of agreement containing several Association concessions.
Some six months prior to the Mayor’s order removing the cars, the City and the Association negotiated a one-year contract extension, in which the Association agreed to budgetary reductions in supervisory coverage and training. In addition, Association members volunteered to take unpaid leave and waive their contractual clothing allowance in order to save jobs. In return, the Association negotiated assurances that “no other superior officer contractual benefits or wages shall be garnished upon the successful acceptance of this agreement.” Removal of the take-home vehicles was not proposed during the side-letter negotiation. Six months after signing the side-letter, the Mayor issued a directive removing the vehicles, and the Association filed a grievance.
According to the Arbitrator, the evidence presented by the Association showed that “the vehicles were issued to the employees to enable them to perform the duties required of a superior officer. The assignment of police vehicles to these employees is necessitated by the nature of their positions – to enable them to respond to major incidents whenever they are needed. As such, the assignment of City-owned vehicles to command staff members is of mutual benefit to the City and the individual employee.” Moreover, the Arbitrator held that this practice was mutually accepted by both sides, was applied consistently for many years to the benefit of both parties, and was in effect at the time the current side-letter was negotiated. As the decision explains, “[T]he collective bargaining process is unique in that the agreement is executed in the light of the work environment, and the parties may reasonably expect that existing practices will remain in effect as long as the same working conditions exist.”
Despite the City’s argument that dire economic conditions justified removal of the vehicles, the Arbitrator held that the benefit was a significant enhancement to an employee’s compensation package that could not be removed by unilateral order. Because the Association established that the use of City-owned vehicles by command staff was a well-established past practice, and because it negotiated assurances that no other benefits would be garnished during the life of the existing contract, the Arbitrator ruled that the City’s Executive Order violated the existing collective bargaining agreement.
The City of Methuen and New England Police Benevolent Association, Local 17, American Arbitration Association No. 11 390 00139 10.
Thanks to Gary G. Nolan of Nolan Perroni Harrington, LLP, in Lowell, Massachusetts, who represented the Association in the case and provided LRIS with the text for this article.
This article appears in the September 2010 issue