Detroit Firefighters Block Layoffs

The Detroit Fire Fighters Association and the City of Detroit are parties to a collective bargaining agreement that expired on June 30, 2001, and are currently in the arbitration process for a successor agreement. Pending the arbitration results, the current contract is required to remain in effect.

Responding to its current budget crisis, the City, on July 1, 2004, compelled layoffs of some firefighters and announced some restructuring of the Fire Department. In September 2005, the City announced a proposal for additional layoffs and restructuring to address budget concerns. The Association filed a lawsuit, seeking an injunction requiring the City to await the outcome of the ongoing arbitration proceedings before making any changes to the status quo. When a trial court issued the injunction, the City appealed to the Michigan Court of Appeals.

The Court upheld the granting of the injunction and the blocking of layoffs and restructuring. The Court began with the proposition that Michigan’s collective bargaining law imposes a duty on employers and unions to collectively bargain on matters comprising “mandatory subjects of bargaining.” A mandatory subject of bargaining is one that “imposes a significant or material impact on wages, hours and other terms and conditions of employment.”

While a layoff decision itself is not a mandatory subject for bargaining, the impact of a layoff decision can be to the extent that it relates to workload and safety. Because the City’s layoff and restructuring programs could well impact workplace safety for firefighters, the Court found that the City could not implement the changes until it had exhausted its obligation to bargain over the topic.

The City also argued that its proposed restructuring did not alter staffing of firefighters at a fire scene, so an injunction was inappropriate. The Court found, however, that the restructuring plan would require whichever firefighter is the “senior member” at the scene to “act in the supervisory capacity,” including handling the role of battalion chief in managing fire scenes. In the eyes of the Court, this would have “a significant impact on the firefighters’ employment.”

In the end, the Court concluded that “the trial court heard testimony on the impact of defendant’s proposed layoff and restructuring plan on firefighter safety and work conditions. The Court found the evidence established serious issues of fact as to whether the proposed changes would impact safety, working conditions and working hours, so the proposed changes were subjects of mandatory bargaining, and defendant could not therefore make these unilateral alterations while the parties are engaged in compulsory arbitration. We agree and find the law was properly applied and the injunction correctly granted.”

Detroit Fire Fighters Association, IAFF Local 344 v. City of Detroit, 2006 WL 1827948 (Mich. App. 2006).

This article appears in the August 2006 issue