North Kingstown – As all parties head back to court today to present oral arguments in the Town of North Kingstown’s case against the State Labor Relations Board (SLRB), its firefighters union NKFFA International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) Local 1651 (Union) and now the assigned Judge Brian P. Stern, the unmistakable, obvious and spoken motive in carrying the relentlessness litigation forward is union-busting.
“What was surprising was the Board’s undisguised, partisan pro-union rhetoric,” said Town Manager, Michael Embury in a September 29 memo.
Responding to the September 27, SLRB Unfair Labor Practices (ULP) decision to immediately return the firefighters to their previous known platoon and shift structure, Embury was dug in against any Union prevalence in the long, volatile battle.
“The Rhode Island Fire Fighters are the strongest union in the State. Change will not come easily,” he said in the statement.
Earlier that day, Embury successfully blocked an attempt by Union members to implement the SLRB order, when firefighters reported for duty under both the 3-platoon and 4-platoon structures. In a memo sent on the 29th one hour prior to the scheduled 7:30 am shift change, Embury wrote:
“If any employee or employees fail to abide by this order and/or participate in the Union’s job action, referenced above, the employee (s) will be subject to discipline up to and including termination of employment.”
The 7-case scenario, condensed in an court administrative action last week, is rooted in the Town’s implementation of unilateral changes to the department structure. The Town, in March 2012, outside the realm of collective bargaining, moved its firefighters from 4 to 3 platoons, implementing 24 hour shifts and a 56 hour a week structure.
When Stern takes the bench later this morning, he will hear the Town’s Motion for Recusal, an attempt to remove him from the proceedings, alleging bias on the part of the court, as well as oral arguments for and against the SLRB Petition for enforcement of their Unfair Labor Practices order.
Stern in a parallel action in December 2012 ordered the Town to “Unring the Bell” and restore the firefighters to the 4-platoon structure, awarding them all back pay and benefits as would have been paid at the end of the 2010-2011 contract. The SLRB’s decision and order is in agreement with Stern’s decision, now on appeal to the Supreme Court.
The Town’s unilateral changes were later deemed by both the courts and SLRB to be contrary to collective and good faith bargaining practices.
Embury and Liz Dolan, Town Council President disagree averring that the Town Charter bestows managerial rights upon them that take precedence over rights of employees – even those who have collective bargaining as their sole labor negotiation pathway.
“Under the Town Charter we can make necessary managerial decisions and changes,” says Embury in a recent interview. “We feel strongly that the Charter supports our position here. If the Union doesn’t have to abide by the decisions that we make under the Charter, where are we?”
Collective bargaining, however, is the only protection afforded the Town’s firefighters, who also serve as their emergency services personnel. In Rhode Island, public safety personnel are prohibited by law from normal course union labor actions such as work stoppage, striking and sick-outs.
Both Judge Stern, in his December order and the SLRB held that the ordinance enacted by the town implementing the structure changes “on its face affects subjects which are very clearly items which must be bargained for pursuant to the FFAA (Firefighter’s Arbitration Act).”
The SLRB further noted that the Town did not assert their management right argument “until sometime in December 2012, well after the issuance of the interest arbitration award from the preceding year and after the exchange of initial proposals for the 2011-2012 year.” The Board also averred that the Town did not during submission of any of its contract proposals state the management right.
The State Labor Relations Board through their Unfair Labor Practices actions against the Town along with the Judge Stern’s Supreme Court “Unring the Bell” order concur that the Town did not bargain collectively and in fact operated in “bad faith.”
In it’s September 27 order the SLRB called the Town out on its attempt to change the parameters of the collective bargaining process.
“We believe the Employer (Town) knew full well that it was engaging in an unlawful practice when it unilaterally changed the terms and conditions of employment and did so in an effort to ‘push the envelope’ within the labor relations community.”
The parties are due before Judge Stern in Kent County Superior Court this morning at 11 a.m.