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Future of Union Negotiations May Rest in N. Kingstown Legal Battle

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

 

An ongoing battle between the town of North Kingstown and its firefighters union appears headed to the State Supreme Court and the decision will likely have a long-term effect on the way municipalities negotiate with their labor unions.

At a time when local communities are crying foul over ever-tightening budgets, unfunded state mandates and a lack of power to raise tax levies more than four percent, a decision by the North Kingstown Town Council may have just cost taxpayers in one town over $1.1 million dollars and, if allowed, may set a new precedent statewide for the way towns and unions negotiate.

At issue is a two-year-long battle between the town of North Kingstown and its local firefighter union, North Kingstown Firefighters Association, Local 1651, IAFF, over the town’s decision to force its firefighters to move to a three-platoon, 24-hour shift structure.

The town argues that it has the legal right to reorganize the structure of its departments and, in a 2011 arbitration battle, cited rising overtime costs as one of the main justifications for the switch.

The union contends, however, that state law, specifically the Firefighter Arbitration Act, require all such changes be made through negotiation and so far has won every major legal decision between the two sides.

With a decision over the weekend by the NK Town Council to reject a tentative deal between the two sides and a ruling issued yesterday from Superior Court Judge Brian Stern that orders NK firefighters back to their previous work schedule beginning Sunday, a battle in the state’s Supreme Court seems all but inevitable.

In the meantime, the eyes of local officials in every one of Rhode Island’s other 38 towns and communities, not to mention unions across the state, will be fixed on the way this legal battle plays out as the case may set a key legal precedent in the way towns collectively bargain going forward.

A Drawn-Out Legal Battle

The fight between North Kingstown and its firefighters began at the end of 2010 as the two sides could not come to terms on a contract agreement for the 2011 fiscal year.

Citing rising overtime costs and shrinking budgetary resources, the town wanted its firefighters to move from a four-platoon shift structure where firefighters worked a pair of 10-hour day shifts, a pair of 14-hour night shifts and then had four days off to a new, three-platoon structure that would require firefighters stay on the job for a 24-hour shift every three days.

The town argued the move would save its residents in excess of a million dollars per year. The firefighters countered that state law required such a move be agreed to through collective bargaining and that it was not only unsafe for firefighters but residents as well.

The arbitrator refused to rule in favor of either side’s argument, insisting they work such a change out amongst themselves, and that decision led North Kingstown to adopt the new shift schedule anyway courtesy of a controversial town ordinance that restructured the department.

If the move is deemed illegal when the legal battle between the two sides is concluded—and so far it has been repeatedly shot down by Stern—the town may be required to pay back all wages its firefighters would have gotten without the shift, a cost estimated to be well over $1 million dollars and counting.

A Possible Compromise Rejected

This week marked the first real chance at a deal being reached by either side but just as quickly as it seemed like the conflict would be resolved, any hope of a compromise was rejected.

In a series of negotiations aimed to solve the problem prior to a Feb. 7 deadline issued by Stern for firefighters to return to the previously-in-place structure, negotiators for the town and its firefighters reached a tentative deal Friday night.

The details of the agreement vary depending on whom you ask.

NK Firefighters Association President Ray Furtado says the union agreed to forfeit $1.1 million in back pay in exchange for a return to the four-platoon structure and a $5,000 “signing bonus” per firefighter in the department.

North Kingstown Town Council President Liz Dolan, however, says the deal would have only saved the town somewhere in the range of $300,000 and failed to solve the real problem that led to the conflict in the first place: unmanageable overtime costs.

A ‘Test Case’ for All of Rhode Island

North Kingstown is not the only community in Rhode Island currently battling high overtime costs for its firefighters.

In last week’s State of the City address, Providence Mayor Angel Taveras heralded concessions that city’s firefighters’ union made to help Providence tackle its $110 million dollar deficit.

And even with the cuts, a report at Thursday’s Ways and Means meeting estimated that Providence is currently facing an $11 million hole midway through the fiscal year, $2.2 million of which is said to come from a gap between what was budgeted and what was needed for the city to fund firefighter overtime pay.

If North Kingstown wins its contention that it had the power to reorganize its fire department the way it saw fit, independent of any collective bargaining process, the legal precedent could allow other cash-strapped communities to do the same. In fact, nearly everyone involved in the NK firefighter legal battle says the case may well serve as a precedent for the rest of the state to follow in the way it negotiates with its union and tackles rising overtime costs.

“Absolutely,” Dolan said. “Everybody’s waiting to see how this plays out because, yes, absolutely every town in this state can see that this is a huge potential savings. Every town has made it clear through the league of cities and towns and other people that if we were to win this issue, on what is a managerial right and what can you do, this is something that will be looked at by lots of other towns.”

Furtado feels the quest for NK to win its legal battle is coming at the expense of its residents.

“The town manager is on the record saying that this is a test case for other communities,” he said. “We just think it’s such an insult to the taxpayers that they’re going to squander hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, in potential damages to do a test case for everyone else.”

A Difference of Opinion

Before Stern’s ruling was issued yesterday, Dolan was asked what the town’s plan was if it was forced to go back to the four-platoon structure previously in place prior to last February’s ordinance change.

She made it clear the town will continue to fight.

“We go right up to the Supreme Court,” she said. “That’s why God invented appellate courts.”

Dolan said the NK Town Council was willing to reject the tentative agreement reached over the weekend and is not going to give up despite yesterday’s setback because it believes it can win at the state’s highest level.

“It costs money but at the end of the day, with all due respect to Judge Stern, we believe there are errors in his decision and that’s why we’ll be appealing.”

Furtado believes the town’s actions are just further proof that it is more concerned with winning a legal case of labor relations than resolving the dispute and says his union will fight on.

“We’re not willing to back down from our contention that the shift is unsafe,” he said. “What they’ve done, the action that they’ve taken is illegal. This is to be clear. They’ve shown blatant disregard of the opinion of the judiciary to this point and we have no reasons to believe that they will modify their behavior based on all of the legal rulings and labor practices that they’ve been guilty of to this point.

Hopefully they look at this realistically and step back and understand that this isn’t in the best interest of the residents or their employees. They have an obligation to keep us safe from harm in the performance of our duties and keep the taxpayers safe as well and by forcing these working conditions on us, they’re remiss in those responsibilities.”

A Chance for Further Negotiations?

In the meantime, both sides say they’re open to further negotiations but the shift schedule seems to be an issue neither side will budget on.

“Obviously we wouldn’t rule anything out but to be blunt, the three-platoon structure and a 56-hour work week is unacceptable and they’ve shown through actions that they really don’t understand what it takes to run a shift effectively and safely,” Furtado said. “As it sits right now, without severe modifications anything like this, we couldn’t entertain this just from a safety standpoint but having said that, we’ll listen to any offers they make and we wouldn’t close the door on negotiations.”

Dolan says the town might be able to find middle ground on the shift change if, and only if, the union can come to the table with an offer that bridges the divide in savings.

“Nothing is set in stone and nothing is final,” she said.

In the meantime, both sides are gearing up for a trip to the state Supreme Court.

“They say we didn’t try to negotiate, we believe we did,” Dolan said. “We believe we have the right to this reorganization. We also believe we have the obligation to say this is what we’re going to do, now let’s sit down and negotiate the terms and conditions. That’s where I see the legal obligation here. We’ve got the right to reorganize and we need to sit down and hammer out the terms and conditions that are acceptable to them.”

“It’s clear this is no longer about the money, this is an anti-labor move on their behalf and we’re determined to oppose it until the matter is settled,” Furtado said.
 

 

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