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Resolving Tension Between a Strong Fire Chief’s Managerial Rights & Collective Bargaining Agreements

The Massachusetts Appeals Court recently issued a decision affirming that Massachusetts Fire Chiefs possess non-delegable management rights with respect to decisions that affect public safety and the management of their departments. However, based on the unique circumstances of the case, Town of Dracut v. Dracut Firefighters Union, IAFF Local 2586, the Court reversed a Superior Court decision (in favor of the Town), and confirmed an arbitrator’s award in favor of the union. The Fire Chief’s broad statutory management rights and his responsibility to protect public safety did not, in this instance, warrant a change of policy that uniquely affected member participation in union meetings.

Dracut is served by three Fire Department locations (east, west, and central), which are staffed 24/7. The Town and union included a provision in their 1986 Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) that allowed the union to hold its monthly meetings at the central station. Since 1986, members staffed at alternate locations were able to travel to the central location to attend the meeting. If a call for service came in during the meeting, crews would deploy from the central station. In April 2016, the Fire Chief issued a new policy that prohibited on-duty firefighters who were stationed at the alternate locations from attending the union meetings at the central station. The Chief stated that the policy was adopted because he was concerned about potential response-time delays if crews were departing from the central station and not their geographically closer alternative locations. The policy, however, did not prohibit on-duty firefighters from traveling from alternate locations to attend other events at the central station, including trainings, memorial services, and public relations events. The union grieved the policy and alleged that it violated the CBA; the arbitrator agreed with the union.

Dracut appealed the arbitrator’s award to Superior Court. The Superior Court vacated the arbitrator’s award on the ground that the award exceeded the arbitrator’s authority by “infringing on the nondelegable authority of the fire chief” to manage the Department and make decisions regarding public safety. The Appeals Court, however, reversed the Superior Court’s decision. It recognized that the non-delegable authority doctrine requires that some issues be “reserved to the sole discretion of the public employer so as to preserve the intended role of the governmental agency and its accountability….” With respect to the Fire Chief, the Appeals Court acknowledged that M.G.L. c.48, §42 (the “strong Fire Chief” statute) grants fire chiefs “full and absolute authority in the administration of the department,” including the authority to make all “rules and regulations for [the Department’s] operations….” The Court was not persuaded, however, that this authority was sufficient to permit a change of policy with respect to attendance at union meetings without bargaining.

The Appeals Court held that Dracut did not demonstrate “the existence of a public policy of sufficient weight, or a core managerial function of sufficient gravity, to warrant denying effect to collective bargaining.” The Appeals Court emphasized that the travel ban applied only to union meetings and not to other activities. “A policy this selective is not fundamental to the effective operation of an enterprise.”


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