We are pleased to write you to provide our analysis of the state Supreme Court’s decision today in In the Matter of County of Atlantic/In the Matter of Township of Bridgewater, Supreme Court Docket No. 077447 (2017). James M. Mets argued this matter on behalf of Bridgewater PBA Local 174 and was assisted by Associate David Bander. This is a great victory for police and fire unions, and all public employees and public employee unions.

To briefly summarize, this was a consolidated case involving police unions in Atlantic County and the Township of Bridgewater. The Atlantic County unions filed unfair practice charges with the Public Employment Relations Commission (“PERC”), alleging that after their labor contracts expired Atlantic County refused to pay step increases during contract negotiations. Bridgewater PBA Local 174, which was represented by our Firm, filed for grievance arbitration when the Township failed to pay step increases after the union contract had expired. In both cases, despite a recognized past practice, PERC dismissed the unions’ challenges and overturned the “dynamic status quo” doctrine, a bedrock principle of New Jersey labor law which held that step increases should be paid after the expiration of a contract. In a scope of negotiations proceeding in the Bridgewater case PERC then went a step further, finding that the payment of post-expiration step increases was no longer a term and condition of employment and consequently could no longer be negotiated or sent to arbitration. The Atlantic County unions and Bridgewater PBA Local 174 appealed their cases to the Appellate Division and the cases were consolidated. In March of 2016, the Appellate Division unequivocally reversed PERC in both cases.

Atlantic County and Bridgewater appealed the decision to the Supreme Court and oral arguments were held in March 2017. The Supreme Court framed the issue on appeal as “whether the parties to the specific collective negotiations agreements at issue in this case were required to continue scheduled salary increases during the period between the expiration of those contracts and the  formation of their successor agreements.” The Court began its analysis by affirming the appellate panel’s finding that step increments, as an aspect of employee compensation, are a mandatorily negotiable term and condition of employment, thereby specifically overturning PERC’s holding that post-contract step movement is not negotiable.

The Court then examined whether the step increment systems provided for in the Atlantic County and Bridgewater labor agreements “still governed working conditions during the hiatus period between agreements.” The Court recognized that the agreements contained language that ensured they continued in full force and effect after expiration, and therefore the step increments contained within those agreements also continued after expiration.

Accordingly, public employers could not unilaterally cease the payment of step increments. Overall, the Court declined to determine “whether, as a general rule, an employer must maintain the status quo while negotiating a successor agreement.” That is to say the Court declined to hold, as the appellate panel did, that all public sector labor agreements containing
step guides, even if they do not contain continuation language, require the payment of step increases post-expiration.

1 The Court approvingly cited the extension language our Firm negotiated into the PBA Local 174 agreement, which stated, “This agreement shall remain in full force and effect during collective negotiations between the parties beyond the date of expiration set forth herein until the parties have mutually agreed on a new agreement.”

Under the thumb of the Christie administration, PERC has sought to undo many of the basic labor law principles that have governed this State, through Democratic and Republican administrations, for the past 40 years. Had they succeeded here it is likely that many of the gains that unions have won in that time, particularly with respect to salary and compensation, would have been eroded. But with our victory in this case, and a new Governor taking office in 2018, the future is much brighter for the labor movement.

Please contact our office if you have any questions or concerns.