Written by Ron Saathoff, director of the Pension Resource Department, International Association of Fire Fighters

Gainesville, Florida fire fighters and other public employee unions in the city got a well-deserved victoryin the fight to protect worker rights.

This week the Florida Supreme Court denied the City of Gainesville’s appeal of a lower court’s decision that ruled in favor of public employee unions after the city, in 2008, changed coverage of retiree health insurance premiums without negotiating with its unions first.

Besides fire fighters, locals from the Communications Workers of America, Florida Police Benevolent Association and Fraternal Order of Police were all involved in the lawsuit.

Three years ago, the city changed the way it funded retirees’ health care benefits by capping payments to premiums when it had been a paying a percentage.

The First District Court of Appeals ruled in May that Gainesville should have bargained with its unions over changes to its payment of retirees’ health care premiums, even though they were not included in the initial negotiations or specifically referenced in the collective bargaining agreement. The City’s contribution formula simply hadn’t been changed since 1995.

The unions’ argument was that the past practice since 1995 was so established as to have been incorporated into the existing agreement.  Under the state’s collective bargaining law, existing terms and conditions of employment could not be changed without bargaining with the unions.  The City had simply changed the employee contribution via ordinance.

The District Court of Appeals heard the case after the unions appealed a decision by the Board of the Public Employees Relations Commission that ruled in favor of the city. With the Florida Supreme Court ruling, public employee unions will be awarded fees for the appeal.