Opponents of a bill that would take away binding arbitration for professional firefighters in six Wyoming cities have a great argument: Why try to fix a system that’s been around for 50 years and isn’t broken?
That logic didn’t win the day on the first reading of Senate File 123, which advanced on an 18-11 vote. But firefighter supporters are hopeful backers of the measure will see that changing the system would create an unfair one in which the cities always win at the expense of public safety.
The sponsor of SF 123, Sen. Dave Kinskey (R-Sheridan), tried to frame the issue as one that has nothing to do with public safety and everything to do about local officials being able to control their budgets. He said it wasn’t directed at the firefighters’ performance.
“They are all brave men and women doing work to keep us safe, and our hats off to them,” Kinskey said. “But this bill is about funding and revenue and responsible management of local governments. … It’s about fairness to all employees and the public, and it’s about respect for the voters.”
In 1965, the Wyoming Legislature recognized the right of paid firefighters to collective bargaining and binding arbitration. Five years later the Wyoming Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the system.
Kinskey’s bill would strip away the binding arbitration and make it non-binding and only advisory for city councils, which would have the final say on contracts between the two parties.
Does that sound even remotely like a fair system? Or a necessary change?
Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) said Kinskey’s bill is aimed at helping his city, Sheridan, which has had five lawsuits filed against it by firefighters in the past decade.
“It concerns me that to fix a system for one city, we’re going to break a system that has worked very well for mine,” Rothfuss said.
Kinskey, though, maintained his bill isn’t just intended to help Sheridan. He said Cheyenne has been in arbitration with firefighters seven times since 1985.
“[Binding] arbitration has grown over time to where it represents an extraordinary cost to the system,” Kinskey said. “Arbitration can typically cost cities $30,000 to $35,000. Unions bring in a labor lawyer from Denver, so their costs have to be about the same.”
The Sheridan senator also claimed most arbitrators come to Wyoming from Colorado, so they have no ties to the state and aren’t accountable to the public. But Sen. John Hastert (D-Green River) said there are Wyoming legislators who are on the list of available arbitrators, and he noted former Wyoming Gov. Mike Sullivan has arbitrated cases in Sheridan.
“The process has worked very well for 50 years,” Hastert said. “Before the Legislature goes on record against firefighters, we should have compelling evidence that the system hasn’t worked. We don’t have that.”
Hastert said Wyoming firefighters have traditionally accepted less pay so they can have better training and safer equipment.
“If you take away binding arbitration and go voluntary, you will no doubt sacrifice public safety,” he added.
Sen. Bernadine Craft (D-Rock Springs) said in Wyoming cities, “We don’t go to binding arbitration right off the bat; it’s only used as a last resort.”
“In the last 50 years, we’ve only done it a few times,” Craft said. “The whole idea is it’s really better [for cities and firefighters] to find common ground.”
She said arbitration is a system of checks and balances. “I’m not sure how we could improve upon it,” Craft said. “If the governing body has the power to say, ‘Well, thanks anyway, this is what’s going to happen,’ that doesn’t strike me as fair.”
Joe Fender, president of the Federated Fire Fighters of Wyoming, said he was disappointed with Tuesday’s Senate vote but the union will keep trying to defeat the bill.
“A point that needs to be made is that the relationship between the cities and firefighters is a 365-day relationship that is every minute of every day, seven days a week, 24 hours a day,” Fender said. “We’re here for the citizens, and binding arbitration is here because we can’t strike, nor would we ever turn our backs on the citizens we protect.”