Arbitration – Case Study
The City of Eugene, Oregon has a collective bargaining agreement in place with the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), representing the terms and conditions of the work relationship between the city and its’ firefighting employees. The agreement includes language that articulates a procedure for employees to grieve decisions made by the fire fighters’ managers and the city regarding wages, hours, and working conditions. These categories are broadly defined in the contract. The contract also specifically articulates a progressive discipline policy, a set of steps to be undertaken when an employee acts inappropriately or when s/he is performing below expectations.
The employment contract has been in place for over two years. During that time, one particular fire fighter, Peter Conant, in the Westside Fire District, has been a difficult employee. On several occasions, Peter has been openly disrespectful of the management of the Fire Department and the District leadership. He has made disparaging remarks about Department policy, and has been critical in front of others about decisions made by the District manager and the fire house Commander. Peter has been spoken to on two separate occasions about his attitude and his willingness and ability to be a “team player”. These conversations have been documented in note form, and have been kept in the Commander’s files.
Peter’s behaviors, however, have not improved based on these discussions. Peter continues to act out, including one instance in which Peter refused to do his share of chores around the firehouse during his regular rotation of duties, claiming that the chores he was asked to do were demeaning and undignified. Peter also claimed that he had been given the worst of the chores in the firehouse as retaliation for his outspoken beliefs. An independent committee was formed to investigate these accusations, a group which included a union representative. The accusations were found to be without basis in fact, a finding which angered Peter. He claimed that the committee was “covering up” discriminatory and harassing behavior on the part of the station chief, and that the entire department was out to get him.
One Saturday evening, the Westside crew was called on a fire response to a house in the lower west hills of the city. When they arrived, they found the upper portion of the house engulfed in smoke. The lower portion of the house appeared to be unaffected so far, but upon trying to enter, the team found the door locked. After shouting and pounding on the door and wall, and receiving no answer, the entry team composed of three firefighters including Peter, broke the door down and proceeded up the stairs to the second level. The smoke was dense and the men had their masks and air tanks on and operating. A room-to-room search revealed two men, one in each of two different rooms, both passed out. Peter quickly grabbed one of them and carried him to safety outside, where the paramedics were able to attend to him. Peter observed one of his partners bring the other man out in similar fashion. The source of the smoke, it was later learned, was a cigarette butt that had fallen from one of the men’s hand after he had fallen asleep, and which had started a smoking fire on a thick carpet under the man’s bed. Subsequent investigation would reveal that both men had been partying heavily that evening, and the question of controlled substances could not be ruled out.
The watch commander on site ordered the team back into the house to search for other people. At this point, Peter declared that everyone had already been rescued, and that there was no point in going back into the house for a room-to-room search. The commander insisted, telling Peter that such a search was standard procedure, and that Peter knew that. Peter and the commander argued, and Peter ultimately refused to return to the house, saying that this was just another tactic in the department’s campaign against him. Other firefighters conducted the search, while Peter stood aside and made derisive comments about them. No other people were found in the house, and the fire department contained the situation.
In the days that followed, an investigation was launched by the department. The findings were that Peter had engaged in egregious and unwarranted insubordination, and had compromised the chain of command. In addition, Peter’s blatant disregard of standard procedure could have placed innocent lives in danger. The department was left with no alternative but to fire Peter. This, of course, infuriated Peter, who immediately filed a grievance of “wrongful termination” against the fire department and the city.
Under the terms of the employment contract, the resolution of such a claim could be handled only by a process known as final and binding arbitration. Under this premise, a hearing would be called before an independent arbitrator, licensed under the American Arbitration Association, who would act as a judge as both sides presented their version of the facts. Utilizing this material and the terms of the contract itself, the arbitrator would have thirty days after the conclusion of the hearing in which to render an opinion regarding the nature of the claim. This opinion, in written form, would be considered the final word on the case, and would not be eligible for appeal in any forum.
You are the arbitrator in this case. Based on the facts noted above, you must do the following: (detail Answers)
- Decide whether the department acted properly, or if, as Peter claims, he was wrongfully terminated for his actions.
- Write a position document, stating your opinion and using the data noted above to defend your opinion.