Arbitrator and Attorney Bryant Agree: Bourne Fire Chief Violated Union Contract By Refusing to Send Firefighter to Fire Academy

February 04, 2019

Bourne Fire Chief Norman Sylvester violated the collective bargaining agreement when he refused to send a full-time fire fighter to the full-time fire academy attended by all current and past Bourne firefighters. A respected, neutral arbitrator agreed with Local 1717 Attorney Patrick Bryant that Chief Sylvester could not rely upon a part-time fire academy to fulfill contractual obligations to train full-time firefighters. The Arbitrator also took time to counsel that the the Chief is not free to ignore past practices of his predecessors and that "management rights" is not a magic wand to void bargaining obligations.

In this case, Local 1717 negotiated language that requires firefighters to complete "the Massachusetts Fire Academy Recruit Firefighting Program or its designated substitute and the obtaining necessary certification by the MA Fire Training Council as FF I/II" within two years. For decades, Bourne firefighters have been sent to MFA's full-time program in Stow. Bourne firefighters were required to complete the full-time program even if they already completed part-time or basic training programs.

in 2018, Chief Sylvester, after about three years in office, believe he could ignore contract language and past practice. The simple contractual issue, according to the arbitrator, is whether Barnstable County's part-time basic fire academy qualifies as a "designated substitute" for the MFA full-time program. The Arbitrator, with little difficulty, found that it did not. "The Barnstable Academy program is not a full time, residential program and is not designed for full-time professional firefighters. On that basis alone it does not seem to fall within the parties’ joint understanding of a 'designated substitute.'"

The grievance could have been resolved on this analysis alone. But the Union also cited the contract's past practice language in support of its case, whereas the Chief testified the contractual references to "Fire Chief" meant he was free to ignore practices established by previous Chiefs. The Arbitrator therefore took the time to educate the Chief about his obligations to honor past practices, even from previous Chiefs and how the Chief's interpretation was not merely incorrect as a matter of law, but deeply disrespectful to stable labor relations.

The Arbitrator wrote, "If [the past practice clause] was relevant, the arbitrator could not agree that a new Chief was free to abrogate a past practice encompassed by [the past practice clause] that had been recognized by his predecessors. That section accords contractual dignity to certain past practices 'known and recognized by the Union and the Fire Chief.' The term 'Fire Chief' is best understood as referring to the office, not a specific occupant. So viewed a new Fire Chief cannot assume office and disclaim being bound by any past practices that were recognized by the Union and prior Fire Chiefs."

This Arbitration Award is not merely an affirmation about the importance of contract language about training of fire fighters. It serves as a a stinging rebuke to imperial Chiefs who believe that they are above the (labor) law.

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