SHERIDAN — The International Association of Fire Fighters Local 276 has notified the City of Sheridan it intends to sue for contractually established pay raises denied in September by a unanimous vote of the city council. The Wyoming Supreme Court ruled in favor of the union earlier this year in a case stemming from a very similar situation that happened in 2010.
Back then, six firefighters were owed step increases in their pay under a contractual agreement that had been honored for the past 30 years. City officials declared in 2010 they could not afford the extra $6,600.
This year, three firefighters were due for a step up in Fiscal Year 2013. The total calculated cost to the city to grant the raises would be just under $2,400. If the matter goes to court a second time, significantly more money will be spent by both sides in legal fees. Local Union President George Neeson said this week he was surprised the city denied the pay increases so shortly after the highest court in the state set a precedent.
Neeson added that the issue could be resolved at any point before the trial via negotiations between the city and the union. He said that because firefighters are bound by a no-strike clause in their labor contract because they’re an essential emergency service, they depend on arbitration to settle labor disputes.
“Negotiations aren’t just for us. It’s also for the city,” Neeson said, adding that a collaborative process protects both sides from exploitation.
The firefighters will be represented by the union attorney based out of Colorado along with Sheridan Attorney Harland Rasmussen.
“It’s a disappointment that it’s necessary to go back to court and have this re-adjudicated when we think it’s certainly resolved and this payment should be made,” Rasmussen said, adding he fully expects the courts to side with the union again.
The written notice of intent to sue was served to City Clerk Scott Badley, who acknowledged receipt of the paperwork.
“We will review that and when we have an answer, we’ll let you know,” Badley said, declining to comment whether the city is considering out-of-court settlement.
Neeson said the city’s apparent willingness to go to court to lose another case is part of a larger effort to weaken the union by bleeding its financial resources.
“Why is it a good idea to fight a lawsuit for less than $2,500 when you know you’re going to spend $40,000?” he asked, and then pointed the current situation is not one where the city was blindsided by the litigation.
“This started back in May when we started whole grievance process. They’ve had that much time to make these decisions,” he said. “We have continually asked them to come to the table and negotiate this in the last few years. During that time period, they did not.”
City Council President John Heath maintains he and other officials from the city are currently engaged in negotiations with the firefighters.
“I respect all employees that work for the city. I treat them all equally,” Heath said, but declined to comment further because of the pending litigation and negotiation agreements.
“I’ve made a pact with the union that we won’t discuss what we’ve discussed until it’s ratified,” Heath said.
Neeson said the city is fighting for administrative right.
“Certainly, I think one way to break up the strength of the union is to continue to take away its financial abilities,” he said. Since the dispute began, union dues have been increased and the firefighters have had to take out loans to defend the union contract. Even after the case was won in the state’s supreme court, the firefighters were unable to go after the city for accrued legal fees.
“It’s been all on our backs,” he said. “And, it’s our own taxes we’re fighting against.”
Neeson said ultimately, it’s Sheridan’s taxpayers who will dictate how the situation will play out for the city’s firefighters.
“Eventually, they’re going to decide what they want to do. If they’re ok with how the city wants to run it and they decide they want to go along with the city’s position, then they keep re-electing them,” he said.