A dispute between Kalispell city officials and the local firefighters union resulted in city firefighters removing many of the items they keep around the downtown station to make it more comfortable. Firefighters spent much of Tuesday morning loading their amenities into a truck to put in storage, including mattresses, cans of coffee, televisions, two refrigerators, and a wooden cutout of firefighters at the site of the 9/11 attacks.
The items were purchased for the station by the Local 547 chapter of the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF). An Oct. 3 letter from Fire Chief Randy Brodehl to the union’s president, Cory Horsens, ordered the removal of “any and all union owned property from city property” by Oct. 17. The letter also ordered the removal of any union archives from city property, prohibited the use of a city address for union mail, and called for a cessation to any “union activities in city facilities or on city property, except as provided for in the contract.”
City officials said firefighters were overreacting and the letter simply called for the removal of computers or records with union information to which the city should not have access. But a union spokesman said city officials were violating the current labor contract, and the union would file a formal grievance with the state Department of Labor and Industry.
“In a state that has a rich union history and collective bargaining law, such as Montana, this is simply not right,” said Ricky Walsh, Vice President for the IAFF’s seventh district. “What (city officials) do not have the right to do is unilaterally degrade the conditions of the firefighters union in the middle of a contract.”
While firefighters were packing, Brodehl, City Attorney Charles Harball, City Manager Jim Patrick and Human Resources Manager Terry Mitton were on the opposite side of City Hall.
“It’s not appropriate to be conducting union meetings or union activities on city time, using city equipment,” Patrick said. “It’s a better system if we keep those activities separate.”
Harball said a degree of liability exists for the city when union information is stored on city property that could harm the city’s position in collective bargaining – and since no other unions are allowed to conduct business on city property, the IAFF shouldn’t be either.
“The union does not have access to city records, the city shouldn’t have access to any of the union’s private records,” Harball said. “We don’t want any indicator that management of the city is going to snoop.”
“What you’re dealing with is a situation of hurt feelings,” Harball added.
But Walsh said that because firefighters work 24 hours a day, unlike other city employees, that the union is allowed more leeway in conducting business during city time and on city property. Walsh also questioned how the dispute would affect negotiations for the next labor contract, which expires June 2008.
“It won’t sour negotiations,” Walsh said, “but I’m not sure exactly how it’s conducive to a good labor-management relationship.”
Related: Union, City Reach Partial Agreement
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