By PAUL J. SPETRINI
NORTH KINGSTOWN—From 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 didn’t 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 ordinance’s 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 “wages, hours and working conditions” 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 Stern’s 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 “wages, hours and shift schedules.”
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.
“My reaction is mixed,” NK Town Council president Liz Dolan said Tuesday. “From my perspective, and this is my interpretation, we need the final order to really kind of clarify exactly what he’s saying. He’s saying that we’ve got the right to implement the 24-hour shift, we’ve got the managerial right to implement the shift without the ordinance … but we need to wait to see how exactly he words his final order.”
“They’re trying to find some small rationale to why they pursued this initiative to this point,” said Ray Furtado, president of the NK Firefighters Association. “They’ve 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.”
Stern’s ruling, which Furtado said “vindicated” 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 town’s 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 ordinance—namely an added salary increase of 10 percent department-wide to make up for the increased workload—“significant” enough to force another public hearing before the ordinance could be adopted?
Stern said they were because it was an expenditure of “more than a half a million dollars.”
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 didn’t, said it could implement any changes it saw fit by ordinance. Stern disagreed, stating that the provision “does not anticipate allowing either the Town or the Union to simply wait for the thirty days to expire to implement unilateral terms of employment.”
The most important part of Stern’s 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 “wages, hours and shift schedules that were not the result of mandatory bargaining.”
“The decision, I thought, was a little bit vague,” 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.
“He held the town had the absolute right to reoganize the fire department into three divisions, with no duty to bargain over that,” Embury said Wednesday. “He also emphasized that the town does have a duty to bargain over the wages, hours and other effects, which we’ve 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 we’ll wait to see what the judge’s order will be on the ruling and we’ll go from there.”
Furtado says that interpretation is wrong.
“We don’t feel that that’s the case because changing from four platoons to three platoons fundamentally involves an impact on wages, hours and working conditions and it’s clear in the decision that those two issues are one in the same,” Furtado said. “We’re 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 it’s a shameful act.”
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.
“We have to wait on what the lawyers tell us and what the court order is,” Stamm said. “But in terms of what I’d like to see happen, I’d like to see the new structure, the three-platoon, 24-hour shift proceed as designed and as implemented.”
“We’ll get clarity from the order,” Dolan said. “My 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.”
Brennan, meanwhile, says the only clear result from last week’s ruling is that both sides will be back in court sooner than later.
“I think we’re going to end up back in court again because I think the ruling leaves questions unanswered,” he said. “I’ve 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 … but I think both sides are going to end up having to go back to court and say ‘where do we go from here’?”