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By PAUL J. SPETRINI
NORTH KINGSTOWNâFrom the moment the North Kingstown Town Council passed a highly controversial ordinance forcibly implementing a three-platoon system where town firefighters would work 24-hour shifts every three days, members from both the council and the fire union, North Kingstown Firefighters Association, Local 1651, IAFF, argued that the battle was inevitably heading to court.
What they didnât count on, however, was that the ruling would leave enough room for interpretation that both sides could claim victory and the key issues would still be up for debate nearly a week after the decision was rendered.
In a 36-page decision issued late last Wednesday afternoon, Judge Brian J. Stern concluded that the hotly-debated ordinance, passed by a 3-2 vote in January, was invalid not only because of changes made between the ordinanceâs first and second reading that called for a 10-percent salary increase for NKFD firefighters but also because it attempted to settle a variety of issues related to âwages, hours and working conditionsâ that must, by state law, be collectively negotiated between the two sides.
It was, at first glance, a clear victory for the fire union. That is, until a closer look at Sternâs ruling revealed that the court concluded that the town has the managerial right to reorganize the fire department and the platoon structure of the NKFD without bargaining and, thus, could make the switch from four platoons to three while still
having to negotiate the specific issues related to âwages, hours and shift schedules.â
Six days after the ruling, both sides remained steadfast in their interpretations. Proponents for the ordinance argue that the town has the legal right to force the switch to 24-hour shifts. Opponents of the change argue that the relevant issues of salary, scheduling and staffing must first be negotiated before they can be fully imposed.
âMy reaction is mixed,â NK Town Council president Liz Dolan said Tuesday. âFrom my perspective, and this is my interpretation, we need the final order to really kind of clarify exactly what heâs saying. Heâs saying that weâve got the right to implement the 24-hour shift, weâve got the managerial right to implement the shift without the ordinance âŠ but we need to wait to see how exactly he words his final order.â
âTheyâre trying to find some small rationale to why they pursued this initiative to this point,â said Ray Furtado, president of the NK Firefighters Association. âTheyâve wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer dollars and they have to have something to show for it but, clearly, anyone who reads the decision can see that it says they have the management right to set a shift but they have to bargain over everything that comes along with that.â
Sternâs ruling, which Furtado said âvindicatedâ the union, explained in great detail the history between the two sides and how they got to the point of needing a court order to resolve the issues at hand.
In August of last year, after nearly 10 months of hearings, an arbitration board settled the 2011 Fiscal Year contract between the town and fire union by freezing salaries for firefighters, denying the union a proposed five-percent increase, and extending the pension eligibility age for new firefighters from 20 years of service to 25, but stopped short of implementing a drastically-changed work schedule that was at the core of the townâs proposal.
The change, which the town says would save taxpayers $1.2 million in its first full-year of implementation, would have altered the previous scheduling arrangement of department firefighters from two 10-hour day shifts followed by two 14-hour night shifts followed by four days off to one consisting of a 24-hour shift followed by 48 hours off.
The arbitration board ruled it lacked the power to make a decision on the issue and implored both sides to return to the bargaining table to find a compromise but, in December of last year, town manager Michael Embury and the town council began working on an ordinance that would make the scheduling change mandatory.
The council passed the ordinance one month later and the union countered with an unfair labor practice claim and brought the matter to Stern.
In his ruling, Stern said there were four key questions the court had to settle.
First, were the changes made between the first and second reading of the ordinanceânamely an added salary increase of 10 percent department-wide to make up for the increased workloadââsignificantâ enough to force another public hearing before the ordinance could be adopted?
Stern said they were because it was an expenditure of âmore than a half a million dollars.â
Secondly, the judge was tasked with considering whether or not the ordinance was invalid because it conflicted with the Fire Fighters Arbitration Act (FFAA).
The town argued that the union had a duty to submit any unresolved issues to arbitration and, if they didnât, said it could implement any changes it saw fit by ordinance. Stern disagreed, stating that the provision âdoes not anticipate allowing either the Town or the Union to simply wait for the thirty days to expire to implement unilateral terms of employment.â
The most important part of Sternâs ruling, however, centered on the managerial right of the town to change the platoon structure of the NKFD.
Stern said the town could do just that, but that the ordinance in question conflicts with the FFAA because it addresses âwages, hours and shift schedules that were not the result of mandatory bargaining.â
âThe decision, I thought, was a little bit vague,â said town councilman Michael Bestwick, who, along with Chuck Brennan, voted against the ordinance back in January.
According to Furtado, the ruling is clear and says, explicity, that the town had no right to implement the shift change without first negotiating it with the union.
Both Embury and the three members of the town council that approved the ordinance disagree.
âHe held the town had the absolute right to reoganize the fire department into three divisions, with no duty to bargain over that,â Embury said Wednesday. âHe also emphasized that the town does have a duty to bargain over the wages, hours and other effects, which weâve done. If you look at the ordinance, it says that is was contingent upon the anticipation of continued negotations.
It was confusing in parts but weâll wait to see what the judgeâs order will be on the ruling and weâll go from there.â
Furtado says that interpretation is wrong.
âWe donât feel that thatâs the case because changing from four platoons to three platoons fundamentally involves an impact on wages, hours and working conditions and itâs clear in the decision that those two issues are one in the same,â Furtado said. âWeâre of the opinion you can change a number on a piece of paper but if we work a 42-hour week, we work a 42-hour week. Their change involves slashing our pay 33 percent and making us work 700 more hours per year. Those are clearly bargainable issues that they ignored and itâs a shameful act.â
Furtado argues that the court ruling struck down the ordinance and, as such, the town should immediately restore the original scheduling structure of the fire department.
Dolan and Stamm, however, caution that the town wants to wait until Stern issues a final order before proceeding.
âWe have to wait on what the lawyers tell us and what the court order is,â Stamm said. âBut in terms of what Iâd like to see happen, Iâd like to see the new structure, the three-platoon, 24-hour shift proceed as designed and as implemented.â
âWeâll get clarity from the order,â Dolan said. âMy interpretation is we can continue with this three-platoon shift and we will be going back to the table assuming this is what his final order is, going back to the table to negotiate the terms and effects of this shift.â
Brennan, meanwhile, says the only clear result from last weekâs ruling is that both sides will be back in court sooner than later.
âI think weâre going to end up back in court again because I think the ruling leaves questions unanswered,â he said. âIâve talked to people on both sides and both sides seem to be claiming victory.
Clearly, the judge indicated that the ordinance was illegal or flawed âŠ but I think both sides are going to end up having to go back to court and say âwhere do we go from hereâ?â