MISHAWAKA, IN — In the latest move in a dispute over benefits for Mishawaka firefighters, the city is suing the firefighters union, claiming the union “improperly excluded” the city’s executive branch during negotiations.
The lawsuit, filed May 20, stems from a dispute over whether or not the Mishawaka Professional Firefighters Union had to negotiate with the city’s executive branch a stipend and reimbursement program for paramedics and EMTs.
The union bargained with the city’s Common Council, which voted to approve the stipends as part of a 3.5% raise for the city’s police and fire unions in 2020, overriding a veto from Mayor Dave Wood.
“This is not about people nor is it about pay,” Wood said Tuesday. “It’s just about following the process that we always have in the city and protecting the integrity of that process.”
Firefighter union president Mark Ryan said the city’s legal actions against the union don’t square with Wood’s message that he prioritizes public safety workers.
“He said many times in emails how he thinks public safety was his No. 1 priority, but he doesn’t show that,” Ryan said.
In October, the council added amendments to the pay ordinance to provide $100 and $50 per-shift stipends, respectively, to lead and second seat paramedics. In addition, the ordinance was amended to include a one-time $200 reimbursement for any firefighter who signed up for a gym membership or another health-related expense.
Wood vetoed the amendments, saying his administration had been left out of the bargaining process.
The council overrode Wood’s veto by a 7-1 vote on Nov. 6, with council member Dale “Woody” Emmons saying the council had the authority to set the compensation and wages for the police and firefighters.
In February, the city filed a complaint with the St. Joseph County Circuit Court arguing the city was “improperly excluded” from the bargaining process and therefore should not have to pay the extra benefits.
Ryan said notices about negotiation meetings were posted, but city attorneys did not attend any sessions. Wood said city attorneys were “not invited” to the negotiations as they have been in the past.
According to Ryan, firefighters have been paid the additional 3.5% raise voted on by the council, but paramedics and EMTs have not yet received the additional stipends.
The union filed a grievance in January seeking reimbursement for the lost pay. Ryan said the union was advised by its attorney to file for binding arbitration, per its collective bargaining agreement, and did so on May 14. On May 20, the city filed suit against the union.
“We filed paperwork to continue with our binding arbitration and their answer was to serve us with a summons,” Ryan said. “They’re trying to push through the court system before we finish or, basically, exhaust our efforts with the collective bargaining agreement.”
The city’s complaint asserts that language in the union’s collective bargaining requires it to negotiate with the city’s executive branch on any items not related to annual compensation.
Wood said the situation sets a bad precedent for other unions in the city who could look to bypass the city administration.
“What could happen is all labor unions could decide, ‘Eh, we don’t want to deal with the administration; we’re just going to go around them.’” Wood said.