By TRACEY O’NEILL
Special to the Standard
NORTH KINGSTOWN– On Friday, Superior Court Judge Brian J. Stern handed down his ruling, a long-awaited decision in the heated battle between the North Kingstown Firefighters Association (NKFFA) Local 1651 and the Town, bearing on the Town’s changes to certain terms of employment having effect on district firefighters’ wage, support and scheduling structure.
The decision, a “first impression” ruling, rendered in a 28-page opinion, is supportive of restoring the Town’s firefighters to all terms and conditions of employment in effect prior to the Town implementation of unilateral changes on March 4, 2012, which Stern said fell outside the realm of collective bargaining and included realigning platoon structure and imposing drastic changes to wages and shifts.
The firefighters’ union and Town have been at odds since early 2011 when collective bargaining talks failed to bring the two parties to agreement. The prior Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), extended through June 30, 2011 was retroactively agreed upon in August of 2011.
Although the Union requested CBA talks commence for a successor agreement in February of last year, the two parties did not meet until late October.
This meeting, taking place outside the realm of the statutorily mandated 10-day commencement period, became one area of legal contention in a litany of filings and hearings before the State Labor Board and in the Superior Court.
Several meetings and attempts at CBA negotiations occurred through the end of 2011 to no avail, with the Town enacting an ordinance in January supportive of its unilaterally determined changes to the firefighter’s terms of employment.
Taking effect on March 4, 2012 the new structure placed firefighters in a 24 hour shift schedule, resulting in 56-hour average work weeks often extended due to mandatory shift ordering.
A suit filed by the union prior to implementation alleged that the Town was acting outside the boundaries of the Firefighters Arbitration Act (FFAA) and the State Labor Relations Act (SLRA) in violation of State law prohibitive of
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alternative remedies to paid fire departments in the form of striking, work stoppage or slowdown.
In May, Stern rendered a decision invalidating the Town ordinance, finding that “even if the ordinance had been properly passed, it was nonetheless invalid because it conflict[ed] with the FFAA by imposing changes to wages, hours, and terms and conditions of employment without first bargaining to agreement or following the FFAA‘s statutory arbitration procedures.”
By invalidating the Ordinance, the Court had effectively negated any implementation of the wage and schedule changes sought by the Town. The Town, however, did not comply with the judge’s ruling, continuing to impose the terms of the invalidated ordinance upon the firefighters to date. The Town’s argument was that the union failed to request interest arbitration in a timely fashion and was without a valid CBA, rendering the Town able to unilaterally impose (at will) any changes upon the union.
Subsequently, the State Labor Board (SLRB) filed a complaint against the Town in August of this year alleging that the “Town violated state statutes when it unilaterally changes terms and conditions of employment, including hours and wages, without bargaining to impasse…”
The Town countered with a complaint requesting stay of arbitration proceedings that would in effect render the union without legal redress or remedy in fighting the Town’s shift change implementation actions.
Coming before Judge Stern again on multiple issues, the Town was defeated on all counts and ordered to “unring the bell” and—as to wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment—go back to the state that existed prior to the unilateral implementation of the shift and platoon change.
Noting the ramifications to the Town, the court further noted in its decision that the Town “may also be required to compensate the firefighters for the period since those unilateral changes were made.”
This corrective action alone carries a hefty price tag, according to Raymond Furtado, President of the NKFFA.
“To date, the Town is liable for nearly $1.3 million in damages for what they’ve done, on top of the astronomical legal bills that they have generated to the detriment taxpayers, while placing the residents and firefighters at significantly increased risk,” Furtado said in a statement after the decision was made.
Stern’s decision allows the Town and firefighters’ union a 30-day window to either comply with his order to reinstate the prior terms of employment or seek further court remedy.
The union this week requested that the Town meet in negotiations for a successor CBA for the 2013-2014 fiscal year. Returning to the bargaining table on Friday, the two parties will be discussing unresolved issues left on the table in 2011.
“We are going into the meeting on Friday with a positive attitude,” Furtado said. “There are two separate issues here - the judge’s decision and the CBA. We hope to be able to come to an agreement on both.”
Furtado believes a return to the prior platoon and shift structure is not going to pose a problem for the department.
“We are ready to go,” he said. “We can implement the changes and return the department to its prior structure in a matter of 48 hours.”