Court rules arbitrator can hear demoted captains issue

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WATERTOWN — After more than two years of legal battles, the city’s firefighters’ union has won the right to go to arbitration over eight demoted captains.

The state’s highest court has decided to deny the city’s request to block the matter from going before an arbitrator. In a decision on Tuesday, the state’s Court of Appeals will allow an arbitrator to hear the case involving the demoted captains.

Union President Daniel Daugherty has referred to the city’s tactic as “an appeal of an appeal of an appeal” because the city continued the strategy after the Court of Appeals ruled last July in the Watertown Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 191’s favor.

“It’s satisfying for us after waiting for delays year after year,” Mr. Daugherty said.

The matter became a legal issue after the union filed a grievance in May 2016 regarding eight demoted captains.

The 70-member union has been without a contract since July 2014. The contract talks became increasingly bitter after the demotions went into effect in July 2016.

The eight lost about 20 percent of their annual salaries when they were demoted, while the city made the change to save about $100,000 a year.

The contract dispute’s main sticking point remains the issue involving the “minimum manning” stipulation that 15 firefighters must be on duty at all times.

With Tuesday’s decision, it can still take between six and 12 months longer to get the case before an arbitrator, Mr. Daugherty said. He urged the city to end the legal squabbling over the demotions by “re-promoting” the captains.

If the union wins in arbitration, Mr. Daugherty stressed the city could end up paying the demoted captains between $100,000 and $200,000 in back pay that they lost after they were demoted.

Both Mr. Daugherty and City Manager Sharon A. Addison heard about the decision Friday afternoon.

“I just got it two minutes ago,” she said.

Ms. Addison stressed that the matter must still go before an arbitrator, so “it’s not a win for the union and not a win for the city.”

The state Public Employment Relations Board must make a decision on the matter, she said.

She blamed the union for causing the matter to move slowly through legal maneuvering, claiming the union kept changing the language in its grievance arguments.

“You can’t do that. It’s bargaining in bad faith,” she said.

Both sides have claimed the other has bargained in bad faith and using delays as a legal strategy.

In a unanimous decision on July 7, the state Appellate Division, Fourth Department, in Rochester, denied the city’s request for a permanent stay from arbitration involving the eight demoted captains.

The city appealed that decision to the Court of Appeals and then unsuccessfully tried to get the highest court to hear the arbitration matter another time.

State Supreme Court Judge James P. McClusky previously ruled in favor of the union.

The city and the bargaining unit have several other legal matters pending.

The city is trying to prevent arbitration over minimum manning issue. The city filed a motion for a stay of arbitration over the minimum manning clause.

Supreme Court Judge James P. McClusky is scheduled to hear the case at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday.

The city contends the minimum manning stipulation causes the department to be overstaffed, while the union maintains that changing it would be unsafe.

The majority of the City Council has expressed a strong desire to end the contract stalemate.

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