West Chester Twp. sues fire union to end grievances, continue with traveling lieutenants

West Chester Twp. has sued its fire union, asking the court to uphold a state arbitrator’s decision allowing them to hire three traveling lieutenants to save about $230,000 in overtime and stop continued “moot grievance” filings.

Overtime cost for fire lieutenants were skyrocketing over the past several years, so township officials decided to create the role of “traveling lieutenant” to fill in as needed. Annual overtime cost savings was estimated at $230,000, according to the lawsuit filed in Butler County Common Pleas Court last week. The idea was to hire/promote three people to fill in when “vacancies existed due to vacation, sick leave, medical leave or other absence.”

The union filed two grievances over the issue.

“From the union’s perspective the main objection is that the parties have a contract that governs how overtime is to be apportioned under certain circumstances, how it is to be distributed,” the union’s attorney Bennett Allen told the Journal-News. “The township’s plan for using these traveling lieutenants ... it’s our position it violates the parties contract.”

The township denied the grievances and it went to arbitration, and the township won. The arbitrator ruled “the board has the authority to determine the size and composition of the workforce.”

The union also filed an unfair labor practices charge with the State Employment Relations Board claiming “the township unilaterally changed the terms and conditions of employment” by utilizing the traveling lieutenants. SERB dismissed the complaint stating “the charge is dismissed with prejudice for lack of probable cause to believe the statute has been violated.”

The union asked for reconsideration and SERB denied the request. The lawsuit claims the union has filed grievances — a total of 103 since January — every time a traveling lieutenant was deployed and demanded that each one go to arbitration. The township has rendered them all “moot” because of the arbitrator’s decision.

The township is asking Judge Dan Haughey to confirm the arbitrator’s decision, declare the continuing grievances on this issue moot, dismiss them and prevent them from going to arbitration and that the township has no obligation to bargain the matter with the union.

Allen noted the arbitrator’s decision was made prior to the implementation of the visiting lieutenant program.

“The arbitrator’s award said nothing of whether or not the township had violated the collective bargaining agreement, the award simply said that the decision to hire these traveling lieutenants was a matter that was up to the township, we never disagreed with that, the power to hire and fire is always the employer’s,” Allen said.

“But what we argued and our position in the arbitration was that there was a duty to bargain over the effects of the decision to hire the travelers. The arbitrator’s award said yes there was a duty, the employer had the right to hire these people but they had a duty to bargain over the effect of that decision, how the decision effected the collective bargaining agreement. ”

The arbitrator did not order the parties back to the bargaining table.

“The arbitrator concluded there is a duty to bargain the effects of the decision to add three lieutenants to the bargaining unit; that the effects bargaining occurred to a limited, unproductive extent [making no conclusion that impasse occurred]; that an order to continue bargaining may/may not result in a different outcome,” she wrote. “But weighing the evidence as it was placed before her, an order to continue/commence bargaining on this subject is most likely a futile result given the hard positions taken/stated then and now in the post hearing submissions.”

Trustee Mark Welch told the Journal-News it is never easy to sue your own employees but in this case it was necessary.

“They’re coming back for another bite at the apple and basically we’re saying enough is enough and we’re just going to ask for a dismissal of this thing and put it to bed,” Welch said. “It’s been churning now for months and months and they keep coming back for another bite at the apple to see if they get a different answer and in each case they don’t. They’ve really exhausted all their possibilities and we didn’t do anything wrong.”

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