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Town’s Actions Illegal, Firefighters Win Again

North Kingstown – The Rhode Island State Labor Relations Board today released its decision in a March 2012 Unfair Labor Practices complaint against the Town of North Kingstown.

Finding in favor of the International Association of Firefighters Local 1651 North Kingstown Firefighters Association, the state’s Labor Relations Board (SLRB/Board) declared the Town’s actions leading up to its unilateral implementation of fire department platoon, shift and wage structures – “illegal.”

Honor Guard1In a twenty (20) page decision released this morning, the Board found:

“The Employer threatened to undertake illegal acts in order to convince the Union to “cave” to its demands. We find these threats of illegal acts to be illegal as well.”

The SLRB held that the issues of wages, call back pay, vacancies, hours of work and minimum-manning were mandatory issues falling under the purview of the collective bargaining process and subject to collective bargaining under the Firefighter’s Arbitration Act (FFAA).

“The Union has proven by a fair preponderance of the credible evidence that the Employer (Town of North Kingstown) has committed a violation of R.I.G.L. 28-7-13 (6) and (10) by refusing to bargain in good faith, by threatening to repudiate contract provisions and by threatening to unilaterally implement terms and conditions of employment without first exhausting all statutory impasse procedures, with the intention of coercing the bargaining representative to waive statutory rights.”

Union responds

Raymond Furtado, Union President responded to the SLRB ruling in a written statement on Monday afternoon.

“The latest decision and order from the State Labor Relations Board yet again finds that the North Kingstown Town Council violated state law and bargained in bad faith.  Recently the Town Council president released a letter clearly designed to persuade those unfamiliar with the issue that they acted properly.  However, two years of litigation, three Unfair Labor Practices and three Superior Court rulings tell a much different story.  This Council has violated the North Kingstown Town Charter and RI State Law, offering excuses and half-truths instead of finally accepting responsibility for their actions.”

The Unfair Labor Practices (ULP) complaint , ULP-6071 was filed prior to the Town’s actual implementation of departmental changes on March 11, 2012. Today’s decision and findings were held in abeyance while the Board dealt with the NKFFA subsequent complaint in ULP-6088. ULP 6088 concerned the Town’s implementation action and was subsequently decided in favor of the firefighters.

Decision in line with previous orders

Members of IAFF NKFFA Local 1651 stand united after hearing news that the Town would not honor the SLRB decision.(Photos Tracey C. O'Neill)

Members of IAFF NKFFA Local 1651 stand united after hearing news that the Town would not honor the SLRB decision.
(Photos Tracey C. O’Neill)

Today’s decision is one more nail in the coffin of a tumultuous administrative and court battle between the Town and its firefighters. Prior decisions at the arbitration, SLRB and Superior Court levels were decided in favor of the firefighters and its union.

Both Superior Court Justice Brian Stern and the SLRB have ordered the Town to return the firefighters to their previous platoon, shift and wage structure and to make each firefighter financially whole.

ULP 6071 filed against the Town by the SLRB alleged, “The employer violated R.I.G.L. §28-7-13 (6) (10) and (11) since December 19, 2011 by failing and refusing to bargain in good faith, by threatening to repudiate contractual provisions, and by threatening to unilaterally implement terms and conditions of employment without first exhausting all statutory resolution impasse procedures, with the intention of coercing the certified bargaining representative to waive statutory rights.”

The decision upheld violations of R.I.G.L. §28-7-13 (6) and (10) but found that the Union did not prove that the Town had committed a violation of RIGL §28-7-13-(11).

Responding to the Town’s aversion that the unilateral implementation was within the Town’s constitutional rights under the Town Charter, the SLRB adopted its findings in the parallel ULP-6088 action. The Board found that “the Employer’s right to reorganize its fire department in no way conflicts with its statutory obligations for collective bargaining as set forth by the FFAA and the SLRA.”

Judge Brian J. Stern in a January 2014, Superior Court decision found the Town’s claim lacking in legal stature.

“The Town’s argument – that the Labor Board has concluded that the SLRA and the FFAA conflict with the Town’s authority to unilaterally implement changes to the fire department’s organization guaranteed to the town through the Charter – is tautological and without merit.”  ~ Brian P. Stern, Justice RI Superior Court

51580019According to the decision, the firefighters and town were seven weeks into the bargaining process for the 2011-2012 contract when the town abruptly notified the Union that they “had unilaterally decided and declared with no one able to question the “sovereign,” all of the cited sections as not permissible subjects for bargaining and further declared that one section impairs the Town’s Constitutional rights.”

The SLRB further determined that neither the FFAA nor the SLRA (R.I.G.L. 28-7-1) provide for unilateral implementation of terms and conditions of employment, especially wages and hours of work.

The decision refers heavily to the Town’s December 19, 2011 letter and Town Ordinance change delineating the structure changes and the Town Council’s same day vote for implementation.

The Town of North Kingstown “gave the Union a mere few hours to even review the letter before taking the action of its first reading that very evening,” wrote the board in its decision.

“Giving the Union such a ridiculously short amount of “warning time” before the first shot is fired across the bow is also indicative of bad faith bargaining.“

The Town was ordered back to the bargaining table to commence negotiations as of the date of the unilateral implementation notification, to cease and desist from further threats and to pay the Union’s expenses and attorney’s fees with regard to the action.

Town’s experiment a costly concern

“The facts of the case are simple and easily verified.  The Town and the Union agreed to hold each other harmless from bargaining timelines while awaiting a ruling on the 2010-11 contract arbitration.  When the Town lost their shift proposal in arbitration later that year, they claimed no such agreement had existed for those months, beginning the sequence of now proven bad faith activity on their behalf,” said Furtado.

“They exploited the good-faith nature of our relationship for a perceived tactical legal advantage, while placing firefighters and the residents at risk.  Today’s decision again reinforces that position, and now exposes the Town to further insult through the award of legal expenses to the firefighters.  The continued defiance of facts by the Town is nothing short of astonishing, and we call on this Council yet again to work with us to end this dangerous, expensive experiment.”

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