The fire district has sued its union over use of a new logo, with both entities saying they created and used the logo first.
On Oct. 31 a judge temporarily banned the union from using its own version of the logo and a hearing on whether the ban should be made permanent is set for Dec. 18.
Mid-Columbia Fire & Rescue and the Mid-Columbia Firefighters Association, IAFF Local 1308, each contend they commissioned and used the logo first.
The two logos are “almost identical,” the fire district said in its lawsuit, while the union said in a statement that they are “somewhat similar.”
Both feature all the same design elements, with the sole exception being that part of the wording on one says “Firefighters” and on the other says “Fire & Rescue.”
The lawsuit comes amidst other contentious matters facing the district, including two unfair labor practice complaints filed in the last 12 months and an ongoing labor contract negotiation that has stalemated and is in mitigation.
MCFR Chief Bob Palmer cannot recall any previous unfair labor practice complaints being filed against the district.
Meanwhile, union members say morale is at an all-time low, and staff turnover has been so high that there have been nearly 20 new personnel since 2012 in what is only an 18-person union.
The district commissioned an inquiry last spring into who first sought the logo. It concluded that the district did. The company that created the logo told the inquiry that its work was done for the district, not for the union.
The district went on to obtain copyrights on its versions of the logo. It demanded the union stop using its logo. After the union didn’t comply, the district sued. The district is asking that the union pay compensatory damages and the district’s legal costs.
In a statement, the union said it “had the artwork created, paid for it, and have been using the logo for some time.” It stated, “The fire district is now suing our community’s firefighters to stop us from using this logo, claiming that we are somehow ‘competing’ with the district to provide services and confusing the public.”
The lawsuit contends a firefighter who was tasked with working on getting a new logo “surreptitiously” asked the logo maker to send invoices to his personal email.
The inquiry done by Portland HR Solutions shows an email from the firefighter, who no longer works for MCFR, to the logo company, asking that it change the logo to say Mid-Columbia Firefighters instead of Mid-Columbia Fire & Rescue, and that the bill and the new logo be sent to his personal email, “since this is no longer MCFR business.”
The district said the union used the district’s logo to update its own brand without knowledge or authorization from the district.
The union said the logo lawsuit was “very petty and a frivolous waste of taxpayer money” aimed at undermining the union’s ability to fight for better working conditions for firefighters.
The union said the district had three attorneys and a patent expert at the Oct. 31 court hearing, and the lawyers were there to “attack firefighters over what is clearly a personal issue of retaliation and has very little bearing on the true mission of the fire district.”
In its own statement, the fire district said it has “invested a substantial amount of resources to defend the right to protect this service mark against further infringement by the union.”
It said, “It is not the district’s intention to retaliate against or attack the union. This is strictly a matter of honesty to the public and recognition and compliance with the law.”
Palmer said it was “challenging” and “not a comfortable situation” to file suit against district employees. “That’s how it feels to have to do something like this. Don’t like it.”
“This is just something that we felt was important, that it needed to happen based on the circumstances,” Palmer said.
He said, “We never really thought we’d have to trademark anything.” He said he’s “hoping to get through it in a positive fashion. That’s all I can hope for.”
In the district’s statement, it said, “The district has communicated to the union that having both brands look the same was not acceptable to the district due to the ethical, legal and political ramifications involved.”
The district noted the union endorses candidates, and also supported a boycott of Fred Meyer in September during a contentious labor negotiation involving the grocery chain. The district said that could create confusion for the public and damage the district’s reputation.
In describing morale conditions, the union statement said personnel face “constant investigations, threats of discipline, and more time meeting with lawyers than solving problems face to face.”
It said the union donates to charities but worries its contributions could decrease because of the “substantial funds” the union members are paying for the litigation, which all comes out of their own pockets.
“We are more concerned with how much money this ridiculous legal case is costing the taxpayers that could be spent on providing more and better fire and emergency medical service,” the union said. The money could be used for training, equipment or personnel, it said.
“Instead, that money is being used to pay for a team of expensive lawyers from out of town to litigate a case that provides no benefit to the public, even if the district somehow wins.”
Palmer listed a number of safety upgrades done for firefighters in recent years, including an exhaust uptake system that funnels vehicle exhaust out of the fire bays and the recent addition of a washer and dryer system to wash firefighter turnouts.
Of the two unfair labor practices the union has filed, one filed in October 2018 has reached a confidential settlement and a second one, which partially concerns the inquiry done by the district over the logo matter, was filed in August and has a February hearing date.
The second unfair labor practice complaint in part alleges the district behaved improperly regarding the first unfair labor practice complaint. The union alleges district brass reached out to a firefighter who the brass considered “reasonable,” and asked him what it would cost to settle the first unfair labor practice complaint. The firefighter said he wasn’t authorized to speak for the union.
The union’s August unfair labor practice complaint alleges the district was unlawfully probing union activities when it required union personnel to participate in the logo origin inquiry.
While that inquiry concluded the district had the logo first, union members told the inquiry they’d first used the logo months before the fire district, putting it on a challenge coin. The inquiry noted that union officials said they would provide information on that earlier use but did not do so.
Union President Lt. Eric Blumenthal said, “The investigation into union activities was illegal and therefore the union did not provide any additional information as the [unfair labor practice complaint] regarding this illegal action hasn’t gone to hearing yet.”
The idea of creating a new logo for the district came about when the district got taxpayer approval in 2016 for a $3.85 million bond to buy seven new fire apparatus and two ambulances.