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Court affirms town's right to rescind union recognition

Injunction lifted, firefighters are now Wolfeboro town employees

January 13, 2011
WOLFEBORO — On Jan. 4 Judge Steven M. Houran of the Superior Court of Carroll County handed down his decision in the matter of Professional Fire Fighters of Wolfeboro, et al. v Board of Selectmen Town of Wolfeboro, finding in favor of the town.

The decision sets aside a temporary injunction granted on Sept. 27, 2010 and clears the way for the firefighters to become town employees rather than union members, and to receive pay and benefits in line with other town employees.

The decision resolves a long-running dispute between the firefighters and the town over health insurance premiums. Firefighters will now be covered under the same healthcare plans available to other town employees and pay seven percent of the cost of the premium.

Formation of a union for Wolfeboro firefighters was based on a petition warrant article approved by voters in March 2002 authorizing the Board of Selectmen "to recognize a collective bargaining unit comprised of the full time Fire Fighter and Officer positions of the Wolfeboro Fire-Rescue Department" based on RSA 31:3, which authorizes towns to recognize collective bargaining units. The town entered into an agreement in 2004 with Professional Fire Fighters of Wolfeboro, IAFF Local 3708, that expired on Dec. 31, 2006; however, the original agreement included a "status quo" clause that kept the terms of the contract in place.

In the three years that followed the union and town were not able to agree on a successor agreement, the main sticking point being the firefighters desire to retain a favorable health insurance plan where the town paid 100 percent of the premiums. The town had come up with different, less expensive plans and had gained approval from the other town union, ASCME, for employees to pay seven percent of the premiums.

Negotiations continued into 2010 but were terminated when, at their Aug. 4 meeting, selectmen voted 5-0 to rescind recognition of the union on the grounds that the 2002 warrant article "was based on a law that had been superseded," and thus the town was not legally required to recognize the union. The governing law at the time did not allow recognition of a bargaining unit of fewer than 10 employees, and then, as now, the group formed as Professional Fire Fighters of Wolfeboro had only nine members – six firefighters and three lieutenants.

Judge Houran agreed with this interpretation, as well as the selectmen's assertion that because it did not have the authority to recognize a unit of fewer than 10 employees, the resulting agreement is invalid.

The firefighters had argued that the town had breached the agreement: with no valid contract to breach, that claim was denied.

Firefighters had also argued that the Board of Selectmen had violated the Right to Know law, RSA 91-A, in how the subject of the contract's repudiation was given public notice. Judge Houran determined that the notice requirements of the law had been met.

Under the pay plan presented by Town Manager Dave Owen in September, the six firefighters would receive a net pay increase, even after paying seven percent of the heath insurance premiums, based on the pay scale recommended by a compensation and classification study of all town employees completed in 2008. Now that the court has lifted the injunction, that pay plan will go into effect immediately.

Martin Lord & Osman
Salmon Press
Alton School
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