North Kingstown – The North Kingstown firefighters are headed back to the Supreme Court. In an emergency action, the town’s firefighter’s union, International Association of Firefighters, Local 1651, requested that the State’s highest court vacate, modify or clarify its May 10, 2013 order, staying the implementation of a lower court ruling ordering the Town to reverse its implementation of unilateral changes to the fire department platoon, wage and hourly structure.
The Union, in its motion, asked the high court to consider the State Labor Relations Board (SLRB) September 27, 2013 decision that found the Town of North Kingstown acting in “bad faith” in unilaterally implementing departmental changes outside the purview of collective bargaining and in opposition to Rhode Island State law.
The SLRB decision, that also ordered the town to compensate its firefighters for lost wages, created a subsequent melee of court filings and appearances in multiple court venues, causing Presiding Justice Alice B. Gibney to consolidate seven outstanding actions in a court administrative order, assigning all to Judge Stern.
Town asks judge to step aside
The Town countered, requesting Stern’s recusal based on a perceived prejudice against the municipality in favor of the Union. Stern after briefing and oral argument refused the recusal based on the Town’s lack of subjective or objective proof of prejudice.
“The court has not prejudged the facts of this case, but has rendered decisions on the application and interpretation of statute…,” said Stern. “The court will treat this matter on its own merits and will make such legal findings and afford such findings on factual issues, the appropriate amount of weight under the statute and these cases will be considered on their merit.”
Stern further provided that a reasonable, educated person would question the appropriateness of one party dictating whether a judge should be allowed on a case and would seriously interfere with the administration of the justice system in what could be considered judge shopping.
North Kingstown not keen on complying
In considering the SLRB’s Petition to Enforce and the Town’s Motion to Stay the implementation, Stern was presented with the Town’s argument that a prior Supreme Court stay of his first impression “Unring the Bell” order extended to any subsequent order of the SLRB in favor of the firefighter’s Union. The SLRB and Union argued that the Supreme Court Order assigned jurisdiction over employment matters to the SLRB, thereby allowing for the administrative board’s ability to enforce its favorable decision.
The Town’s refusal to comply with the SLRB decision was heavily weighted in what it considered its duty to comply with the Supreme Court order.
“It puts the town in the ultimate Catch 22 where it has to remain compliant with a Supreme Court order,” said Timothy Cavazza, counsel for the Town.
Precedent will undermine public safety employee/public workers’ rights
The Labor Relations Board disagreed, cautioning the court to consider the ramifications of a decision allowing for unilateral implementations and further removing the powers of the administrative agency tasked with protecting workers’ rights.
“It sends a message – a bad message – to every public employer out there to go ahead and do it,” said Margaret Hogan counsel for the SLRB.
Rhode Island State law is prohibitive of striking and work stoppage labor actions by public safety employees. The state’s firefighters are protected under the Firefighters Arbitration Act that allows for collective bargaining and arbitration in lieu of traditional labor union remedies.
Stern requests direction from the Supreme Court
The Town’s argument reliant on the Supreme Court stay, Stern advised the parties to seek clarification from the Supreme Court as to the breadth of their order and its affect on actions of the SLRB.
Representatives of the Town, SLRB and Union conferenced last week with Justice Maureen McKenna Goldberg sitting as Duty Justice. Justice Goldberg did not make a ruling and sent the parties back to Judge Stern due to procedural issues leading to the filing of the present motions.
Safety concerns weigh on department and members
Safety concerns troubled Union and department members due to their responsibility to residents who rely on the town’s fire department for both fire suppression and emergency medical services.
“The biggest component and problem is working the 56 hours instead of the 42,” said Joseph Andreoli, Vice President of the Rhode Island State Association of Firefighters (RISAFF). “They added 14 hours, another day and a half. In addition to that, because the department is understaffed, there is overtime. We work in an industry that is a 24-hour, seven day a week industry that has to be maintained.”
Overtime and the necessity for coverage mandates that some individuals be placed in a position of having to stay on duty when the department is short-handed. That requirement places firefighters in a position where the 56 hour week is extended even further creating safety concerns.
“That’s where you get into the safety aspect, not only for us as a team, but as to the quality of care for the residents,” said Andriole. “Picture yourself on a rescue. That rescue is a moving ER. Those guys on that rescue have to provide a lot of advanced medical techniques.”
The town’s fire department has relied heavily on mutual aid from surrounding communities since the structure change in March 2012. According to Andriole, mutual aid developed as a support structure, where neighboring departments assist each other in order to ensure resident safety and is not meant to be a burden to surrounding communities and their taxpayers.
“Our mutual aid system is a good system,” he said. “It’s supposed to be a safety net used in rare instances where one community gets overwhelmed, due to a large-scale incident or multiple calls that deplete resources.”
The Town has maintained since the expiration of the 2010-2011 contract that departments across the country have implemented 24 hour shift structures. According to Andriole, there are many factors in those 24-hour structures that are not applicable to Rhode Island and in fact, support the Union’s aversion of unsafe working conditions.
Under the North Kingstown emergency services structure, firefighters provide fire suppression and emergency medical services, as opposed to split departments, where fire and medical are separate entities.
Andriole was also critical of the Town’s reduction in the firefighters’ hourly wage in addition to the increased hours of work and reduction in staffing. Referring to the Town’s refusal to work under the FFAA, he said, “This is the process that has been in place since 1961. The Town Council in North Kingstown decided, ‘We’re going to do it our way. We’re not going to follow state law. We’re not going to do anything the Democratic way. We’re not even going to talk about what you want to do.”
The Union’s most recent filings with the Supreme Court reflected Andriole’s sentiments.
“On March 11, 2012, the Town of North Kingstown (“the Town”) unilaterally changed firefighters’ terms and conditions of employment by increasing their hours by thirty percent, increasing their shift lengths by over fifty percent and decreasing their hourly rate.”
Hope for a positive outcome
Union President Raymond Furtado expressed the frustration of the membership, while holding out hope for a speedy resolution to the Town’s refusal to comply with the SLRB order.
“We’re a bit frustrated,” he said. “We, feel the SLRB order should have been enacted a few weeks ago. We have faith that our judicial system won’t condone the bad faith bargaining tactics of the Town and will uphold the ruling of the SLRB as mandated by Rhode Island State law.
The Town on Tuesday declined comment, maintaining the status quo under the Supreme Court stay in effect.