O’burg goes to court against firefighters arbitration demand

O’burg goes to court against firefighters arbitration demand
Ogdensburg Fire Department (Source: WWNY)

OGDENSBURG, N.Y. (WWNY) - The battle of Ogdensburg rages on.

City officials went to court Thursday, in an effort to block the firefighters union from using one of the tools the union has - arbitration.

With the city cutting the size of the fire department down to 20 people, below what the city’s contract with firefighters requires, the firefighters union is demanding arbitration.

The union says the city has violated the “entire” contract. The union wants an arbitrator to order the city to “restore manpower levels” and pay firefighters extra for every shift they work below the minimum staffing in the contract.

In legal papers submitted to state Supreme Court, city officials argue the union’s complaints are not subject to arbitration. The city claims, essentially, that the firefighters contract does not provide blanket protection against job cuts, and that even if the contract is interpreted as having job security protections for the firefighters, those protections are “not enforceable or arbitrable.”

One of the arguments the city makes is sure to raise objections: the city points out the contract forbids it from making cuts to “the total compliment of bargaining unit employees...between the numbers of 28 and 24 due to budgetary reasons or the abolishment of positions.”

“Nowhere,” the city’s lawyers writes, “is the city....prohibited from making job reductions below 24 firefighters...” which is what the city did, in cutting the fire department to 20 people.

City officials also argue the six year contract is too long a time to guarantee job security, and that the “job security clause is not enforceable” because “it was negotiated in a time of fiscal distress.” City officials contend Ogdensburg faces a tax and spending crisis.

While it can be used by either union or management, arbitration is generally regarded as a powerful tool for unions.

In a statement, city manager Stephen Jellie said “The City seeks judicial relief from this DEMAND and we look forward to making the case in Supreme Court.”

The lawyer for the firefighters union, Nathaniel Lambright, said in an emailed statement Friday that the city “is refusing to abide by its contractual obligations for purely political reasons.”

“What company would possibly want to come to this historic city and do business with it when it refuses to honor its contracts and obligations just because the city council did not like the contracts that the prior city council had entered into?” Lambright asked in his email.

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