Court: Volunteer firefighters need to be part of union vote

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By Jonathan Gallardo

Gillette News-Record

Via Wyoming News Exchange

GILLETTE — The Wyoming Supreme Court has ruled in favor of the Campbell County Joint Powers Fire Board and Teton County, determining that volunteer firefighters need to be included in a vote to form a union.

The decision, handed down last week, is in line with the ruling that came out of District Court last year. Fourth District Judge John G. Fenn ruled on the Teton and Campbell County cases last July and determined that part-time firefighters should have been allowed to join the union. His decision essentially invalidated both unions.

In August, both unions appealed the District Court decision to the state Supreme Court, which combined the cases.

Earlier this year, unions for the fire departments in both counties argued that some Wyoming statutes distinguish between part-time and full-time firefighters and that part-time and full-time firefighters often have different interests, so they shouldn’t be lumped into a single union. They also pointed out that part-time firefighters aren’t prevented from forming their own unions.

Both unions argued that the definition of “firefighter” is “ambiguous on its face because it contains language allowing for differing interpretations of its terms when ‘context requires a different interpretation,’” according to court documents.

In this context, the unions argued, only full-time firefighters are entitled to collective bargaining.

The state Supreme Court, however, cited a state statute that says “the organization selected by the majority of the firefighters in any city, town or county shall be recognized as the sole and exclusive bargaining agent for all members of the department …”

The court had “no dispute that volunteer (and pool) fire fighters are members of their respective departments” because they receive monetary and other compensation for their work. If they were left out of the union, it would render the statute meaningless.

In an email to the president of Federated Fire Fighters of Wyoming, union president Bryan Borgialli wrote that the reasons for joining the union revolved around staffing issues, job security, safety, due process and communication.

“We do not wish to drive a wedge between career and volunteer staff,” he wrote. “We look forward to building a relationship with them and continue to move the fire department in a positive, forward direction.”

In July 2015, full-time firefighters in Campbell County voted to unionize to improve communication within the department after internal conflicts resulted in the abrupt retirement of former fire chief Don Huber, Borgialli told the News Record at the time.

Six months later, the Fire Board declined to recognize the union because it excluded part-time firefighters. In making its decision, the board consulted the Wyoming Attorney General, who said that part-time firefighters are paid members of the Fire Department and could not be excluded from the union.

When the union asked to meet with the Fire Board in February 2016 to begin collective bargaining, board members declined because they had decided not to recognize the union.

In response, the union sued the board.

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