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Town Fire’s Back, Stalemate Prompts NKFFA to Arbitration – Again

 “The Town Council’s most recent letter to the press is staggeringly inaccurate.  The attacks they now levy against the members of the RI State Labor Relations Board, Judge Brian Stern, the firefighters, or anyone that dare attempt to hold them accountable for their illegal actions to this point are baseless and clearly show the contempt they hold for Rhode Island law.” ~ Raymond Furtado, President NKFFA IAFF Local 1651

North Kingstown – The Town of North Kingstown recently fired back in the press in response to decisions rendered against them by the Rhode Island Superior Court and the State Labor Relations Board concerning its failure to bargain in good faith with its firefighters union.

In an opinion letter released to multiple media outlets, the Town, once again set forth its argument in favor of its unilateral implementation of fire department platoon, shift and wage structures. The Town’s argument and insistence that it negotiated in good faith were duly struck down in years’ long hearings that began in March 2012.

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NKFFA firefighers clear hot spots at a detached structural fire. (Photo Tracey C. O’Neill 2013)

The implementation that took place outside the confines of collective bargaining instigated a deluge of administrative and court proceedings, leading to multiple decisions in favor of the firefighters’ return to their previously known work structure. The Court and SLRB further awarded firefighters all back wages, benefits and interest penalty from the date of implementation through the date of payment.

In its writing, the Town called the firefighters out for “taking every opportunity to attack the town’s position in the press without stating the real issues that remain unresolved.” The Town further claimed that the Town Council had remained silent during contract talks.” It was unclear in the letter whether the Town meant current collective bargaining negotiations or negotiations in their entirety since 2011.

NKFFA Local 1651 on Friday gave notice of its intention to move to Arbitration proceedings for the contract year 2014-2015. Contracts for 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 remain unresolved and are also in active arbitration.

“Pursuant to the State of Rhode Island Fire fighter’s Arbitration Act, Chapter 28-9.1 et. seq., the North Kingstown Fire Fighters, Local1651, International Association of Fire Fighters, AFL-CIO, hereby notifies the Town of North Kingstown, Rhode Island, that due to the fact that the thirty (30) day bargaining period will end on Sunday January 19, 2014 and that there are no bargaining sessions scheduled from current to said end date, and the fact the Town failed to reach an agreement with the Union on a collective bargaining agreement, the Union hereby submits all of its unresolved issues to arbitration in accordance with the “Fire Fighters Arbitration Act”. – January 17, 2014 14-15 CBA Arbitration Demand from Local (1)

The Town also went so far as to discount the State Labor Relations Board (SLRB) both as an entity and as individuals, setting forth specific employment and union-related attributes rendering each member incapable of making an unbiased decision. Town Council President, Elizabeth Dolan, an SLRB member, although recused from SLRB proceedings, signed the opinion letter with her fellow council members.

The letter went on to say that the town had made several offers to the firefighters during the last year that went unanswered. NKFFA, in addressing last week’s proceedings, countered.

“Insofar as our 2014-15 contract negotiations are concerned, the Town representatives (in this case Council member Carol Heuston and attorney Daniel Kinder) only met with us twice, the first meeting occurring on December 20, 2013,” said Raymond Furtado, President Local 1651 in a statement on Wednesday. “Despite assertions made in their letter, they didn’t present us with their formal proposals at either session.  Rather, we received their proposals for the 2014-15 only two days before the deadline established by statute, in the form of an email.  They did not ask to schedule another session, and as a result we were forced to file for interest arbitration for that contract year as well.”

The town’s writing didn’t stop in its disdain for the firefighter’s union and SLRB. Judge Brian J. Stern was also on the chopping block.

“It was a foregone conclusion that Judge Stern would find for the firefighters since that was his earlier position,” the town wrote.

In continuing anti-union rhetoric, the town asked, “Is the town treasury an open pocket book for any union to demand money from? [It] would be easier to cave in to union demands rather than negotiate in good faith and protect the taxpayers from excessive contracts. Our position has been to protect the taxpayers pocketbook, to negotiate in good faith, to abide by long-standing state law governing how we operate and to use the Supreme Court rulings as our guide.”

Protection of the taxpayer’s pocketbook at this point in time carries a hefty bounty. Last cost estimates from the union totaled $2.8 million and climbing. The Town planned to file an appeal of the latest lower-court ruling to the state’s highest court.

With legal fees surmounting on both sides and three separate contracts under arbitration, it is unclear how heavy that purse will be.

“Clearly, with now three contracts in the arbitration process along with the endless litigation related to our unsafe work schedule, their lack of concern for the safety of the residents, taxpayers, and firefighters has never been more evident,” said Furtado. “Their actions speak much louder than their words.”

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