IBEW Local 1245 scored a huge victory for its members at the City of Redding when a state appeals court ruled in favor of the union in a lawsuit over retirement benefits.
The Third District Court of Appeals in Sacramento ruled on Nov. 2 that a local government can be bound by a past commitment to pay future retirement benefits to its employees even if it says it can no longer afford them.
The case was an important battleground for two competing interests: the need by cash-strapped municipalities to find ways to bridge budget shortfalls, and the right of workers to have their union contracts honored. For several years running, Local 1245 hasactively resisted the City of Redding’s attempt to back out of its contractual commitments. Negotiations deadlocked in 2010 when the city imposed its final offer, which included reduced funding for retirees’ health care costs.
In its lawsuit, IBEW Local 1245 argued that public sector employees often give up higher wages during negotiations in order to gain improved benefits for their retirement.
“If an employer can’t be counted on to honor its written commitments, the whole foundation of collective bargaining is undermined,” said Local 1245 Business Manager Tom Dalzell. “When we give our word, we have to keep it. We are extremely pleased that the court agreed with us that the employer has to keep their word, too.”
The union’s lawsuit cited language in its contracts that said the city would pay half of the health insurance costs “for each retiree in the future.”
City officials argued that the language wasn’t binding and that the city had an overriding duty to balance its budget. The officials cited the state labor law that allows a government agency to impose its last and best contract offer after an impasse. A Shasta County judge dismissed the union’s suit.
But the county judge was overruled by the appeals court. Justice George Nicholson, in the 3-0 ruling, said that a labor agreement can provide “vested rights” that remain in effect after the agreement expires. He said the most reasonable interpretation of the original Redding contract was that “the benefit was promised to active employees when they retired” in future years.
“We have a lot of proud and very happy members in Redding right now,” said Local 1245 Assistant Business Manager Ray Thomas. He added that the court’s decision “will help all public sector unions in California.”