AUGUSTA — The Maine Supreme Judicial Court has upheld a ruling saying that almost all contract provisions remain in effect even after a contract expires as long as bargaining is taking place.

The ruling, which affects public employees, came earlier this week in a case in which the city of Augusta appealed a decision of the Maine Labor Relations Board involving firefighters who retired after their collective bargaining agreement expired and who sought to keep retiree health insurance benefits.

The board decided in favor of the firefighters union, Local 1650, International Association of Fire Fighters.

The unanimous decision, authored by Supreme Court Chief Justice Leigh Saufley, said the “board did not err in concluding that the city must continue to pay the identified class of retirees 100 percent of retiree health insurance benefits during negotiations in order to maintain the static status quo.”

“The decision potentially impacts everyone in the unit and every public employee union across the state,” said Douglas L. Steele, a Washington, D.C.,-based attorney, who argued on behalf of the firefighters’ union. “The issue is really being considered by the Supreme Court for the first time. This law really covers what issues must remain in place post-contract expiration while the parties continue to bargain their new agreement.”

Stephen Langsdorf, the city’s attorney, disagreed with the decision.

“The law court has taken an expansive view of what the status quo is when a collective bargaining agreement expires and negotiations are taking place,” he said. “From the city’s perspective, we think it gives something of a disincentive to whatever party is more satisfied with a provision in the contract. There’s no incentive to try to settle.”

He said the court ruling means that almost all of the contract remains in effect except for step increases.

Langsdorf said the city’s position was that the firefighters had to retire while the contract was in place in order to take advantage of retirement benefits.

“Our argument was we know the maximum number of people who are going to retire, and we know the maximum exposure,” Langsdorf said. “This makes it more difficult to plan and negotiate.”

Langsdorf said the firefighters union and the city eventually negotiated a contract which included some retirement benefits.

“This case was a dispute over whether certain items in the contract continued post-expiration,” Steele said. “The Maine Labor Relations Board decided they do. If management could withhold something, it would put a lot of pressure on employees. The static status quo is designed to say you’re negotiating and you both need to play by the same set of rules to get an agreement.”

He also said that the court gives “great deference” to the agency interpreting the law.

Betty Adams — 621-5631
[email protected]