PROVIDENCE—The Supreme Court granted the town of North Kingstown a stay of Judge Brian Stern’s Feb. 7 order to put an end to the three-platoon, 24-hour shift system for town firefighters. Negotiations over the past months between the North Kingstown Firefighters Association (NKFFA) Local 1651 and the town have failed to produce a new collective bargaining agreement, and the stay ensures that the firefighters remain under the town’s preferred work system until the Supreme Court makes a final decision.
“The town council and town manager are gratified that the Supreme Court has granted the stay of the lower court’s decision,” said Daniel Kinder, the town’s attorney. “They felt that the lower court was wrong in ordering the town to put back into effect the firefighters union’s expired contract. That contract expired nearly two years ago, on June 30, 2011.” “The town made extensive efforts to get an agreement from the union through December 2011,” he continued. “Its budget was based on making changes, similar to all other town union contracts that would help the town to deal with the effects of the Great Recession. Only the firefighters’ union refused to make the needed changes.”
The court’s ruling is based on four premises; that the town will ‘prevail on the merits of its appeal,’ no ‘substantial harm’ will come to either the town or firefighter’s union as a result of the stay, ‘irreparable harm’ would come to the town if the stay was not granted, and the stay does not harm the public’s interest. The court has found that all four conditions were satisfied in the town’s oral presentation of April 30.
The Supreme Court specifically disputes Stern’s Feb. 7 decision to deliver a mandatory preliminary injunction that, by Feb. 11, ordered the town to ‘reinstate wages, hours and other terms and conditions of employment [that] go back to the state that existed [in] pre-unilateral implementation,’ or before March 11, 2012.
“We deem the issuance of this injunction to be improper for several reasons,” read the Supreme Court’s stay order. “Neither party requested it…and it was ordered absent the requisite findings and without notice to the town.”
The order further notes that, according to a previous Rhode Island Supreme Court decision, the Superior Court does not have the jurisdiction to determine the force of any agreement between a managing body and a union, and ‘may not require the parties to enter into any particular agreement.’
Although the Supreme Court did not disagree that the firefighters will be forced to work increased hours, it ruled that ‘substantial harm’ will not be done according to them through town’s March 11, 2012 unilateral ordinance to implement a three-platoon system because they will not suffer any lay-offs or a reduction in salary. With the stay, the Supreme Court points out, ‘each firefighter will continue receiving the 10 percent salary increase that went into effect on March 11, 2012.’
NKFFA President Ray Furtado stated that the firefighters’ decision was ‘disappointing,’ but ‘not totally unanticipated.’
“[The Supreme Court’s decision] was a procedural finding on a portion of the Superior Court ruling which the town appealed, and did not in any way address the illegality of the town’s action to this point,” said Furtado. “The court clearly states that those questions are still ‘looming’, and we very much look forward to that dialogue.”
Furtado further stated that the three-platoon system for firefighters continues to put the public at risk, criticizing the town council for not negotiating in ‘good faith.’
“The unfortunate result for both firefighters and our residents in the short term, however, is that [the stay] maintains an environment that breeds incredible safety concerns,” said Furtado. “Legal proceedings aside, the town council continues to ignore this issue, and continues to deny the fire department the resources it requires to operate this system safely and effectively.”
“If they were genuinely concerned about safety, they would independently study the issue as other responsible communities have done,” he continued. “If they were concerned about fairness, they would have bargained in good faith [and] wouldn’t be risking millions in damages and legal fees [for taxpayers] to be a self-acknowledged ‘test case’ for other communities. Our residents voted only a few years ago to build a new fire station, add personnel and increase their fire protection, not have it decimated to serve as a politically driven ‘test case.’
Kinder contended that, in order to protect taxpayers financially, the firefighters union should commit to the three-platoon system and adopt structural changes as ever other town union has done in the past year.
“The Town would have had to reorganize its fire department, adding $1.2 million in annual costs, if the Supreme Court had not stayed the lower court decision,” said Kinder. “That would be a huge hit to the taxpayers of North Kingstown.”??“The Town has followed the law at every turn, and the town’s charter empowers the town manager to organize the fire department,” he added. “The town has always been available to negotiate a resolution to this litigation. It must protect North Kingstown’s citizens first and foremost. The School Department cannot suffer another loss of $1.2 million, and neither can any other operations of the town. It is not fair for this one union to demand that kind of money.”
Per the Supreme Court’s Feb. 19 stay in response to the council’s appeal to Stern’s earlier decision to uphold the firefighters’ opposition to 24-hour shifting, both sides had been required to continue negotiations and advised to seek a mediator. The mediator, former Rhode Island Chief Justice Frank Williams, told both sides in March that mediation was not bringing the town and the fire union any closer to an agreement.
In August, the State Labor Relations Board (SLRB) also filed a complaint against the town council for its unilateral changes to the firefighters’ work hours and scheduling structure, stating that it had engaged in unfair labor practices which ‘’have resulted in denial of the rights of employees.,’ and had ‘tended to lead to strife and unrest inimical to the public safety, health and welfare.’
The SLRB held a formal hearing on April 23. According to Kinder, the fire union presented its case and the town will continue to do the same before the board on May 7. No decision on the complaint is expected to be given for several months.