There’s been a lot of talk this week about the North Kingstown Town Council’s decision to pass an ordinance that will mandate town firefighters work 24-hour shifts every three days beginning on March 1 but what’s ultimately lost in the shuffle of all that discussion is the main issue at hand and, really, the only one that matters.
While both sides can argue whether or not the scheduling change is good for firefighters, and the evidence is certainly not conclusive for either side in that regard, the one thing that absolutely can not be debated is that, if ultimately passed into law, this ordinance sets a dangerous precedent for the future of collective bargaining as we know it.
In fact, it may very well threaten to destroy the concept of negotiating altogether.
Long before Monday’s meeting, the idea of the 24-hour shift was at the crux of the town’s position in its arbitration fight with the union for the most recent contract between the two sides.
The town argued then, as it does now, that North Kingstown stands in fiscal crisis due to cuts in state aid and rising post-employment benefits. It said that the move would lead to significant savings and that structural change was needed within the fire department to avoid drastic cuts elsewhere.
While these points all have merit, and the numbers don’t lie, the arbitrator ruled back in August that it could not decide for or against the motion because, as a board, it alone did not have the power to make that decision. Further, the ruling stated that the two sides needed to come together to find options that were workable for both parties.
This is important because the union’s spin on this decision is that the arbitrator ruled against 24-hour shifts which is simply not true.
It’s the town’s take on the ruling, however, which is truly puzzling.
What this new ordinance does is implement the 24-hour shifts without negotiations with the union. It’s akin to two children arguing over a toy, a parent saying they had to find a way to share it, and one child ignoring the rules, taking the toy and walking away.
This ordinance is an attempt by the town to completely circumvent the decision by the arbitration board and attempts to put its interests ahead of those of the union. That would be all well and good … provided the two sides didn’t have to abide by that pesky little thing called state law.
RIGL 28-9.1, more commonly known as the Rhode Island Firefighter’s Arbitration Act, says that towns in Rhode Island must collectively bargain with the firefighter’s union over hours, wages and other terms and conditions of employment. Further, if an agreement can not be reached, any and all unresolved issues have to go to arbitration.
It doesn’t take a legal expert to see what’s wrong with this picture.
The town argued that a shift had to be made to 24-hours. The union disagreed. An arbitrator said both sides needed to find a solution.
Rather than following the arbitrator’s ruling, the town decided that for this next contract, it could do whatever it wanted instead.
While it appears from an outsider’s perspective that both sides had been negotiating in good faith and offering concessions, it’s hard to question how true the intentions of the town were when they had this idea to simply pass their will as an ordinance in their back pocket all along.
If this ordinance is ultimately put into law—and that’s a big ‘if’ considering the way the union says it intends to fight this—one has to ask what’s next.
Could the town completely disregard any of its other contracts? What’s to stop the town council from passing any ordinance it sees fit mandating changes in the way teachers are scheduled without regard to that union’s contract with the school department?
Who’s to say this won’t lead to a slew of ordinances being passed any time the town can’t get its way at the bargaining table?
Negotiating is a difficult and often stressful process and it’s certainly true that NK needs some sort of major change from within to navigate through the rough waters of rising costs and falling revenues.
But what it doesn’t need is an abuse of power that flies in the face of everything negotiating and arbitration is suppose to stand for.
Council member Michael Bestwick said it best Monday when he argued that the two sides need to be “on the same team and work together”.
Sadly, however, with the drafting of and passing of this ordinance, it’s clear that the town of North Kingstown is fine with the idea of playing as a team as a concept … provided it can make, and break, the rules of the game as it sees fit.