Supreme Court Rules for the Permanent Existence of Unions Over Management Rights Argument

Last year we discussed a controversial ruling by the Minnesota Court of Appeals in Firefighters Union Local 4725 vs. City of Brainerd.  In that decision, the Court of Appeals ruled that the City did not have the authority to reorganize its fire department by laying off bargaining unit members, and it committed an unfair labor practice when it laid off all of the bargaining unit members, thus interfering with the existence of the union.  The world of public labor stood in awe as the court held it is not a matter of inherent managerial policy for a public employer “to reorganize a department when reorganization interferes with the existence and administration of a union.”

As we suspected, the City did not accept the decision of the lower court, and appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court.  Obviously, the City, as well as most of us employer representatives, believed that the management rights section of PELRA, which deals with “matters of inherent managerial policy,” would trump any claims of unfair labor practice.  Employers are not required to negotiate on those matters and unions recognize in virtually every collective bargaining agreement that employers are not required to discuss those matters with collective bargaining representatives. 

The Court’s affirmation of the lower court was actually quite simple.  The Supreme Court looked no further than the plain language of §179A.13, the unfair labor practice statute.  In its decision, the Supreme Court placed emphasis on the fact that in both its brief and in witness testimony, the City acknowledged that its actions had eliminated the bargaining unit.  The City noted on several occasions that the local no longer existed due to the City’s actions. 

The Court then found that nothing in §179A.07, the inherent managerial policy section of PELRA, allows employers to reorganize as part of its ability to determine the fire department’s manpower and set its budgets.  However, the Court held the fact that an employer has that right does not end the matter.  It held that an employer is not required to bargain over its decision, but at the same time is prohibited from engaging in unfair labor practices, including interfering with the existence of a bargaining unit.  The Court found no immunity to commit unfair labor practices to be written into the plain language of the law.  It disregarded any requests to read immunity into the statute, and ignored policy arguments from the City and the amici, based on the plain language of the statutes. 

Instead, the Court relied on the Minnesota Legislature, which was responsible for the creation of PELRA in 1971, to correct the language that led to the decision, if it was so moved.  The case was remanded to district court for an appropriate remedy. 

In this decision, we are essentially being told that once a union is certified, that the unfair labor practice statutes protect their existence ad infinitum, or until the members of that unit choose to decertify. 

Management rights have always been more complicated than the law makes them appear, especially in Minnesota.  This decision further complicates which steps an employer can take into organization restructuring and the choices employers make regarding manpower.  If you or your organization need assistance understanding your management rights, contact the Wiley Law Office, for up-to-date legal advice that works.