Firefighters go to court to defend contract in dispute with Webster Groves

Safety for firefighters, residents is at stake as
city unilaterally cancels union contract

Publisher Emeritus

Firefighters Local 2665, representing the members of the Webster Groves Fire Department, filed a lawsuit last week over the city arbitrarily cancelling its legally binding contract. They are asking a St. Louis County judge to reinstate the agreement.

The lawsuit was necessary despite the fact that the firefighters had accepted 11 of the 12 items included in the city’s “last, best, and final offer” after months of negotiations. The one city’s issue the union could not accept was over staffing that impacts the safety of Webster Groves residents and firefighters alike, said firefighter John Youngblood, Local 2665 4th District vice president, representing 12 fire departments in the county’s central core.

The union does not believe the city has the legal authority to terminate the contract because the agreement has an Evergreen Clause that mandates the contract remains in force during the time of negotiations as long as both parties are negotiating in good faith.

And that’s where the city is hanging its hat – over the “good faith” bargaining issue which the union says is absolutely not true.

To make the point, Youngblood said that the union not only accepted 11 of the city’s 12 proposals (even though they had reservations about some of them) in a good faith effort to find common ground for a new agreement, but the union also offered options regarding the city’s hang up on staffing which created overtime costs. Included in the union’s counteroffers were stop gap protections for the budget, elimination of “call in” overtime pay, and hiring a floater.

Youngblood noted that in the illegally just-nullified contract, when fully staffed, there would be 12 firefighters per shift.  Furthermore, minimum staffing was 11. Throughout negotiations, the City wanted to reduce that to 10. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) recommends four firefighters on each apparatus, requiring at least 11 on-duty firefighters per shift in Webster. (The city operates two fire trucks, one ambulance, and one shift battalion chief at all times.)

The union also agreed that while Webster firefighters are also jointly certified as paramedics, the city could hire paramedic-only positions to allow flexibility.

Since the hiring of a new city manager in early 2021, Local 2665 has had to file eight grievances over the City violating their contract, four of which resulted in requests for binding arbitration.

“This is upsetting to all of us,” Youngblood said, noting that the negotiations boiled down to a single issue – one person, the city’s demand to drop minimum (safety needed) manning from the 11 the union (and City) had previously accepted to now 10.

And he was critical of the city’s misleading statements on other issues, including their saying the firefighters would get the equivalent of a six percent raise when in reality “it’s more like three to four percent as salaries differ depending on employment longevity.

“We were ready to continue bargaining but the city called it off,” said Youngblood. “The city claimed bad faith bargaining by the Union in order to cancel the contract, it’s that simple,” he stressed.

“This could be a precedent-setting issue,” said Mark Woolbright, International Association of Firefighters 2nd District vice president, noting that if the city gets away with ignoring the Evergreen Clause designed to keep an agreement in place while negotiations continue, “it would be undetermined what could happen going forward with other local government agencies throughout the state.”

Woolbright emphasized that “The Missouri Constitution gives public employees the right to organize and to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing. If cities are allowed to unilateral change this, it could drastically change most everything for public employees.”

He noted that in a similar effort in a nearby fire protection district a few years ago, the courts upheld the Evergreen Clause on a challenge.

And to the staffing issue, “for safety and efficiency reasons it is preferable to have five or up to six on a ladder truck, but less than four does not meet NFPA minimum staffing standards,” Woolbright said.

Youngblood said the union is ready to go back to the bargaining table immediately.


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