The City of Pasadena, California and the Pasadena Fire Fighters Association Local 809 are parties to a memorandum of understanding, California’s equivalent of a collective bargaining agreement. Local 809 represents the Department’s approximately 150 sworn captains, engineers, and firefighters. Battalion chiefs are represented by the Pasadena Fire Management Association.
A disagreement arose between Fire Chief Bertral Washington and Local 809 as to how to honor four firefighters who had perished while battling fires in Northern California near Redding and Yosemite National Park. The Union wanted to place shrouds on the badges of their members; the Chief denied the request. Washington told Local 809 President Scott Austin that he would poll his command staff and get back to him. In the meantime, Local 809’s Board of Directors gave Austin a 24-hour deadline to issue a press release expressing the “displeasure, dismay, and actual hurt” of Union members if Washington had not authorized shrouding by then. The deadline was not communicated to Washington.
When Washington had not responded by mid-morning the following day Local 809 issued a press release titled “Fire Chief Refuses to Allow Firefighters to Wear Mourning Bands.” The press release described how the four firefighters had perished and was critical of Washington’s decision. It was reported in at least one newspaper. The next day, Washington sent an email message to Department employees in which he authorized shrouding.
Austin became aware of this email message between 4:00 and 5:00 PM. On the same day, between 5:00 and 5:30 PM, Local 809 issued a second press release in which it acknowledged that Washington had now authorized shrouding. However, the first press release remained posted on Local 809’s social media accounts.
Two battalion chiefs, Acenayer Brown and Wendell Eaton then took matters into their own hands. Eaton authored and Brown circulated a petition in the form of a letter to the City Manager. The letter purported to be “a declaration of the unified members of the Pasadena Fire Department, composed of sworn, non-sworn, and administrative staff, represented by various labor groups for the purposes of collective bargaining, who affirm their support and confidence in the leadership of Fire Chief Bertral T. Washington.” Local 809 responded by filing an unfair labor practice complaint alleging that the petition interfered with the exercise of rights guaranteed under the collective bargaining laws by Union members.
An administrative law judge for California’s Public Employment Relations Board upheld the complaint. The ALJ wrote that “in general, employers are entitled to express their own views on employment-related matters in order to facilitate a full and knowledgeable debate on those subjects. The expression or dissemination of views, arguments, or opinion does not constitute, nor is it evidence of, an unfair practice as long as there is no threat of reprisal or force or promise of benefit.
“Here the petition asked employees to sign on to a particular point of view (denying a newspaper report that employees had been denied the right to vote as they wanted to in a union election; affirming support and confidence in the leadership of Chief Washington). The signatures on the petition at issue here gave away the names of the employees who signed it and was not confidential. Finally, although the petition at issue here was signed by an unrepresented employee and two employees represented by another union (Brown and Eaton), the language of the petition and the context in which it saw the light of day made clear that the signatories took a stance against the position taken by leadership of ‘organized labor groups’ vis-à-vis Chief Washington and, more specifically, Local 809’s post criticizing Chief Washington for not authorizing shrouding for the four fallen firefighters from Northern California or not doing so quickly enough.
“Even if the petition had only expressed support for Chief Washington, I would find that when Brown, a superior, offered the petition to his subordinate, a reasonable employee would have felt coerced to sign it and thereby to side with management against his or her union. It matters not that the employee himself may not have felt subjectively threatened or intimidated, or that he was not subjectively discouraged from participating in protected activity. As Brown’s conduct therefore tended to objectively interfere with a reasonable employee in the exercise of protected rights, such as siding with his or her union against management, it constituted unlawful interference.”
Pasadena Firefighters Local 809, 44 PERC ¶ 93 (Cal. PERB ALJ 2020).
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