Court Upholds Arbitrator’s Opinion On Fire Union Meetings

Firefighters for the Dracut Fire Department in Massachusetts are represented by IAFF Local 2586. Local 2586 holds meetings on a monthly basis. By necessity, these meetings are scheduled during a shift. Prior to 1986, union meetings were held off-site, at bars or in restaurants.

In 1986, the parties agreed that, in order to ensure attendance at meetings by members and union officers assigned to work the shift when the meeting took place, Local 2586 would be permitted to hold its meetings at the central station, where the Department’s headquarters are located. This agreement was memorialized in the parties’ contract as Article 20, § 2, which stated that “any meeting either special or regular monthly meeting of [Local 2586] will be allowed to be held at the central station (Sta. 1). Scheduled (unless waived) at least three days in advance with the Chief.”

From the time the parties agreed to Article 20, § 2, in 1986, until April 6, 2016, the practice of permitting firefighters at the outlying stations (i.e., the west station and the east station) to attend union meetings at central station was consistent. Before leaving for the central station, crews at outlying stations would call the central station and report to the officer in charge that they were ready to leave for a Local 2586 meeting. The officer in charge would then inform them if they needed to stay at their assigned station due to “inclement weather or other public safety considerations.” If no such circumstances existed, each crew drove the full complement of equipment to which it was assigned to the central station for the duration of the meeting.

If any calls for service came in during Local 2586 meetings, crews deployed from the central station. The same procedure was used by crews at the outlying stations when they left their stations to go to the central station for other activities, such as inspections, memorial services, public relations activities, training, drills, and for refueling.

On April 6, 2016, the chief informed Local 2586 that he would no longer permit on-duty firefighters from the outlying stations to attend union meetings at the central station. The chief’s ban applied only to union meetings, not other activities. When an arbitrator granted Local 2586’s grievance challenging the Chief’s order, the Town challenged the decision in arbitration.

An appeals court upheld the Arbitrator’s award. The Town’s main argument was that the Arbitrator’s decision fell within the “public policy” exception to the finality of arbitration decisions. Along those lines the Town contended that even if collective bargaining over attendance at union meetings might be permitted, the award violated an important public policy because public safety would be endangered by a delay in response times.

The Court found that the Town’s argument was “overbroad.” It the Court’s eyes, “There must be a clear showing that public safety will be affected. That showing was not made in this arbitration. The new policy does not prohibit on-duty firefighters at the east and west stations from attending inspections, memorial services, public relations activities, training, drills, refueling, or like activities at the central fire station. The recitation of facts in the Arbitrator’s decision contained no basis for concluding that there was a correlation between response times and attending events at the central fire station.

“Additionally, under the Arbitrator’s award, the chief retains his or her historical ‘discretion to decide based on circumstances, on a given day, that firefighters should not leave an outlying station to attend a union meeting.’ This discretion, which the Arbitrator found had previously been exercised to keep all three stations fully staffed in instances of ‘inclement weather or other public safety considerations,’ remains available to the chief or the officer in charge.”

Town of Dracut v. Dracut Firefighters Union, 2020 WL 2097348 (Mass. App. 2020).