Court rules against St. Paul in mandatory vaccination of union workers

Better late than never, as far as St. Paul firefighters, cops and other union members are concerned in the case of their months-long challenge to Mayor Melvin Carter’s mandatory COVID vaccination policy that jeopardized many holdouts’ jobs as city employees.

A Ramsey County District Court decision amounts to a repudiation of Carter’s all-or-nothing approach requiring city workers to be vaccinated by the end of 2021 or face potential termination. The Pioneer Press reports the court ruled the city should have negotiated with unions over such a significant change in the workplace, rather than essentially issue an ultimatum.

A judge ruled Thursday that the city of St. Paul’s COVID vaccination policy for police, firefighters and legions of other unionized city workers should have been part of the bargaining process, and he barred the city from enforcing it until it is approved as part of a negotiated agreement.

The employee unions filed lawsuits last year over the coronavirus vaccine mandate for employees, calling it an unfair labor practice — and the judge agreed.

The firefighters’ lawsuit noted that the city didn’t negotiate with the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 21 before making “a unilateral change to the terms and conditions” of employment for Local 21 members.

Other cities and government entities enforcing COVID mandates allowed employees opposed to vaccination the option of regular testing as an alternative. While St. Paul held some talks with the unions, Ramsey County Judge Leonardo Castro concluded the seriousness of the stakes involved required the city to engage much more.

For an issue such as injecting your own body with a foreign substance versus losing your job, he reasoned, that’s not enough.

“It is difficult for this Court to imagine what could be more intrusive and more destructive to the employer-employee relationship than requiring employees to forfeit their bodily autonomy in the name of maintaining their livelihood,” he wrote.

The decision amounts to a reprieve for the likely dozens or more union employees who resisted the city’s mandatory vaccination policy.

Chris Wachtler, the attorney representing several unions who sued, said he was pleased with the ruling but emphasized it didn’t reflect an anti-vaccine sentiment by the unions he represents, which include firefighters and supervisors, as well as a host of workers in city departments that range from public works to transportation.

“The unions are not against vaccinations per se,” Wachtler said. “That wasn’t what this was about. This was about a narrow labor issue. … They (city leaders) weren’t going to give a testing option from the very beginning. That’s all we ever asked for.”

So a testing option will likely be the main focus of talks expected to resume in earnest between the city and unions. As a result, Carter’s vaccination mandate will not be enforced, until and unless the parties reach an agreement.