North Kingstown – North Kingstown Firefighters were doled another serving of Town hubris as they waited for shift assignments early this morning . Delivered by Chief Fenwick R. Gardiner at headquarters, the message was received with glum looks and intense frustration.
“The bottom line is the “A” platoon is on duty this morning,” said the Chief.
Members of multiple platoons were on site to commence the day’s work with hope for return to their regular shift, wage and platoon structures as ordered by the Rhode Island State Labor Relations Board (RISLRB) on Friday.
“If you are here for coffee and donuts, that’s fantastic,” said Gardiner. “Otherwise, “A” platoon is on the accountability sheet today. There is no other shift. No other personnel was requested by this office. You are not being ordered to work. You are free to stay here, but you will not be on the accountability sheet and you will not be paid for today.”
The result of a polarized conflict between the Town of North Kingstown and its firefighters’ union, the meeting came after the State Labor Relations Board, on Friday ordered the Town’s fire department back to its management structure held prior to March 11, 2012 when the municipality, through its town council enacted an ordinance implementing unilateral departmental changes.
The chief gave all members a copy of a memo from Town Manager, Michael Embury dated Sunday morning at 6:22 am and addressed to Raymond Furtado, President NKFFA stating that there would be no return to the previous platoon structure due to a Supreme Court order in a parallel action appealing the union favorable Superior Court decision of Judge Brian J. Stern.
“Please let this correspondence serve as a direct order, pursuant to that Order of the Supreme Court that the current schedule and conditions will continue until the courts have instructed the Town to the contrary,” Embury said.
The bottom line on the memo was the veritable nail in the coffin in a battle between the parties grown volatile since the Town’s unilateral actions in March of last year. The verbiage was clear as was Embury’s message to Union members in an “our way or the highway” declaration.
“If any employee or employees fail to abide by this order and/or participate in the Union’s threatened job action referenced above, the employee(s) will be subject to discipline, up to and including termination of employment.”
The chief did not read from the memo, nor did he paraphrase its message, sticking to the order of the day and ensuring his members knew what work was to be done. In addressing the State Labor Relations Board decision Gardiner presented the position of the Town and did not offer any personal perspective to his department members.
“The structure of the fire department has not changed as a result of the Labor Board Decision and I have not been given by my chain of command any directive to change anything,” he said. “So it’s the status quo of the 3-platoon system, 10 hour day – 14 hour night.”
The chain of command placed Gardiner directly under Embury who also serves as Director of Public Safety for the town.
Members gathered were silent as the Chief left to deliver the message to each individual station.
Embury’s memorandum, with a direct reference to retaliatory action is indicative of aversions made by the State Labor Board in verifying Friday’s Unfair Labor Practices complaint and findings of bad faith on the part of the Town.
In phone interview Sunday morning, Embury was critical of Furtado, the SLRB and unions in general.
“Look,” he said. “The Union President threatened to implement a change when there is a Supreme Court order in effect. He told the chief what to do. That’s not how it works.”
Referencing a memo sent by Furtado asking the Chief to have the Deputy Chiefs make sure all positions were covered, Embury considered Furtado’s compliance with the SLRB order a threat by the union.
Embury provided two lines of reasoning for the Town’s refusal to comply with the order. The first reason being the parallel Supreme Court Order and the second being management rights given by the Town Charter.
“The fact of the matter is you have the labor board intervening when there is an order that says nothing is to be done,” he said. “They are called the Labor Board for a reason.”
“The Town Charter is clear on the town’s right to reorganize any department. If we can’t reorganize, the unions will take over everything.”
As for the firefighters who were ready to resume their regular schedule this morning, Embury had little to say.
“I give them credit that everybody showed up for work,” he said. “They did what they were supposed to do.”
Furtado expressed the grim mood of the membership, already making its appearance on social media feeds.
“We’re incredibly disappointed that the town has decided to willfully and knowingly ignore the law. Our members were present and accountable to maintain either shift scenario,” Furtado said. “I received an email 45 minutes prior to the shift from the town manager, stating that any members electing to work a shift other than the illegally implemented 24-hour action imposed would be disciplined or terminated.”
Furtado, who met first with the Chief and Deputy Chiefs, was supportive of his members and their efforts and professionalism under extremely trying circumstances.
“The unpredictable and bizarre nature of the town’s actions to this point required that we have as many resources in place as necessary to maintain our job function. Above all, protecting and defending our residents has always been their top priority.”
The next chapter in the battle is scheduled for 9:00 am tomorrow morning with the Town Council convening an emergency session. Both Embury and Town Council President, Liz Dolan have indicated that a Motion to Stay the SLRB order will be filed.