Town employees win back free speech, overtime

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The Town of Pittsfield cannot hush the voices of its public employees. So says the New Hampshire Public Employee Labor Relations Board, which ruled Dec. 26 that the New Hampshire town had violated employees' right to free speech, and broken the collective bargaining agreement by denying overtime and detail duty for police officers and ambulance personnel.

"Our members stood together to stand up for important rights," says Richard Walter, president of the AFT-affiliated Pittsfield Town Employees. "I am proud of the commitment to fairness and public service our members have shown through this long, grueling process. Our members care deeply about the services they provide to the residents of Pittsfield, and the attempts to prohibit our speech was harmful to the public discourse."

The issue heated up in March, when the town's newly elected board of selectmen issued a directive forbidding scheduled overtime—a commonly used tool for emergency personnel like ambulance drivers and EMTs, police officers and highway crews who work to keep roads safe through New Hampshire's harsh winters. Overtime also allows for full coverage among police officers on call so that there always is backup, and their safety is not threatened by having to pull a shift alone. And, employees depended on the extra income.

Employees also were not allowed to work on "details" for outside organizations such as power companies, which might use a police detail to direct traffic around an area where power lines were being repaired.

When concerned employees began to speak out against the new policies, the selectmen issued a "communications policy," which unionists called a "gag order," that prohibited employees from writing letters to the editor or making public statements regarding their employment conditions, without approval from the board of selectmen. Employees were even warned about "decorum" at public meetings, and told they would not be allowed to attend unless their presence was requested.

In a brave demonstration of solidarity, the 17-member local fought the changes anyway. Several submitted affidavits describing the detrimental effects of the new policies—among them an order to close the police department because no officers were available to staff it without charging overtime; leaving the town with no ambulance service available, again due to staffing without using overtime; and the palpable fear that by speaking out employees were risking their jobs (one even used a pseudonym for his letter to the editor).

In addition, employees pointed out that their most recent contract included no pay raises for three years and an increase in their healthcare contribution, concessions that might have gone differently had they known they would lose the opportunity to earn overtime and detail pay.

The selectmen's actions were "not only an attack on free speech," says Terri Donovan, the attorney for the Pittsfield Town Employees/AFT-NH. They were also an attack on collective bargaining, and good faith negotiations."

And it would not be tolerated. "You see union strength in the most unusual places," says Donovan. "This is a small town, a small group," but with "phenomenal courage." And, in this "live free or die" state, they successfully defended their rights. [Virginia Myers]

December 27, 2012