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Labor Attorney John Bielski Interviewed by Public Opinion about Chambersburg Borough's Unfair Labor Practices against Local Firefighter

February 2, 2013

Chambersburg Borough found to have committed unfair labor practices against local firefighter (Public Opinion)

By Samantha Cossick
CHAMBERSBURG - Chambersburg Borough has been found to have committed unfair labor practices against a local firefighter under the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Act.

Thomas P. Leonard, the hearing examiner who oversaw the June 18 hearing between the borough and representatives of the International Association of Fire Fighters before the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board, issued two proposed decisions and orders on Wednesday. Provided there are no exceptions filed with the board within 20 days, the order shall become final.

In the first decision, Chambersburg Fire Department Captain Patrick R. Martin, who also serves a president of the Greater Chambersburg Area Paid Fire Fighters IAFF Local 1813, was found not to have violated labor statutes when he sent a letter to IAFF union members reminding them of their bylaws.

Leonard's second decision states that the borough was, in fact, in violation of Pennsylvania's labor statutes when it imposed the suspension on Martin for sending the letter.

"In considering all the facts of the present case, the conclusion that must be reached is that the borough's suspension of IAFF President Martin would have a tendency to coerce a reasonable employee in the exercise of protected rights," the decision states.

"In the context of the present dispute, where a union officer is suspended for reminding fellow union members of the obligations of union membership, it is hard to reach any other conclusion."

As part of Wednesday's proposed decisions, the borough has been ordered to cease and desist from "interfering with, restraining or coercing employees in the exercise of the rights guaranteed in the PLRA" as well as from "discriminate against employees in regard to hire or tenure of employment or any term or condition of employment to encourage or discourage membership in any labor organization."

The borough must also immediately rescind Martin's suspension and make up all wages and benefits Martin would have earned had he not be suspended, the decision states.

"It is my understanding that no final decision has been issued by the PLRB and any preliminary opinion is still subject to judicial review by the full Labor Relations Board," said Borough Manager Jeffrey Stonehill in an e-mail.

"Accordingly, the borough solicitor will be evaluating the preliminary opinion to determine what objections, if any, might need be filed with respect to this case."

The proposed decisions confirm what officials with Local 1813 have told the borough from the beginning, said John Bielski, attorney with Philadelphia-based law firm Willig, Williams & Davidson who represent Local 1813.

"It's unfortunate that we've gotten to where we've gotten, but at this point it's clear that Mr. Martin and the Local did not engage in a secondary boycott and the borough did in fact violate Pennsylvania labor statutes," he said.

"I really would think at this point in time it would be best if we could just resolve these issues and get back to the business of providing fire and emergency services."

On Oct. 26, 2011, Martin sent a letter to IAFF members asking they adhere to the IAFF constitution and bylaws by "refraining from providing volunteer firefighting services to the Borough of Chambersburg." According to IAFF bylaws, career firefighters who are members of the IAFF cannot volunteer within another affiliate's work jurisdiction, in this case the borough.

Martin's letter was written in response to the borough's discussions with firefighters about cutting staff or transferring responsibilities to volunteers. In December 2011, the borough adopted a "Change in Focus Plan" which would cut eight firefighters from the CFD beginning July 1 this year. This plan was later retracted when the borough was granted a two-year Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant.

Then on Jan. 30, 2012, Chambersburg Borough Council held a special meeting and voted to suspend Martin for 240 hours (10 work shifts) based on conduct "unbecoming an officer and neglect and violation of an official duty." The borough cited the letter as calling for a secondary boycott.

During the executive session meeting, Martin read a prepared statement that said the letter was merely an internal union matter not for public consumption and written while off duty.

"At no time did I or any other member of Local 1813 ask any non-IAFF member or for that matter any individual fire department to discontinue or limit fire service," he wrote. "Additionally, and despite a claim to the contrary in one of the borough's charges, my letter was not sent to any member of the Chambersburg Fire Department. Further, my letter did not state that any person must cease volunteering within the borough, nor do I have the authority to compel that. The choice of whether to volunteer was left entirely up to the individual."

Prior to sending the letter, Martin had met with Franklin Fire Company Chief Mark Trace since the Franklins are a volunteer company located inside the borough and 14 volunteers who respond to calls within the borough, 12 of which are IAFF members.

In a memo Trace sent to Franklin volunteers he acknowledges that Martin will be sending the Oct. 26 letter and clarifies that it does not regard calls outside of the borough and is not a formal charge of any kind, according to the PLRB findings of fact. He also states that volunteers who do not wish to respond in the borough will not be disciplined by the Franklins.

"Again this is a request out of respect for your union brother and not a formal charge of any time," Trace wrote. "NOW with that being said, if you continue to volunteer on runs into the boro, Local 1813 will file formal charges with the IAFF to have disciplinary actions taken against you."

However, Trace later said that he was "outraged and upset" by the letter because Martin was requesting IAFF members who were volunteers to not respond to calls within the borough, the findings of fact state.

As part of statements entered into court records, Trace and James Hull, president of the Franklins, said some members have been ridiculed and mistreated, which created division.

"The letter from Mr. Martin impacted the morale and efficiency of the Chambersburg Fire Department by placing stress on such members," their statements said.

On April 21, 2012, Scott McNew, vice president of IAFF Local 1813 and a paid firefighter with CFD, sent a letter to at least 11 IAFF members who volunteer with the Franklin Fire Company bringing charges against them for continuing to volunteer after Martin's letter.

On May 8, the borough filed a lawsuit against IAFF 1813, Martin and McNew in Franklin County Court. Judge Richard Walsh grants an injunction to "cease and desist from encouraging, sanctioning and supporting a secondary boycott of volunteer fire services in the Chambersburg Fire Department."

Martin, who had appealed his suspension, saw the decision upheld by the Chambersburg Civil Service Commission on May 25 while McNew was fired on July 23. McNew has since appealed his termination.

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