North Kingstown Ruling a Victory for Firefighters

North Kingstown Firefighters, IAFF Local 1651 have won another round in their protracted battle with the town.

Earlier this year the town unilaterally changed the shifts and the hours of the firefighters from a four shift, 42 hour a week schedule to a three shift 56 hour a week schedule. The result was a 33% increase in hours and a 25% decrease in hourly pay.

In May, that decision was declared illegal under Rhode Island’s Firefighters’ Arbitration Act, yet the town persisted in the new schedule offering an array of excuses and legal theories to support the new schedule.

Last week, Judge Brian P. Stern issued another ruling effectively overruling all of the town’s arguments. For the labor law aficionados, the decision is an interesting read with numerous important legal and philosophical issues being discussed.

For those concerned only with the bottom line, Judge Stern’s decision can best be summarized by the following quotes:

The actions of the Town in this case may seem extreme to some, as it is now effectively saying “I’ve had all I can stands, I can’t stands no more.” [with a footnote to the cartoon character Popeye].

The Town may not agree with the State that, from a public policy point of view, the prohibition of firefighter strikes is worth delegating—to unelected arbitrators—the Town’s authority to enter into an agreement with its firefighters.

The only relief for the Town, other than challenging the constitutionality of the [Firefighters’ Arbitration Act] or changing the state statute is for the Town to look to the Judicial branch of state government. 

[The Town’s position is:] “Judge, if you agree with our interpretation of the FFAA, we can disregard it and do whatever we believe is necessary.” The problem is that the interpretation the Town asks the Court to give to the FFAA is inconsistent with the clear precedent relating to the rules of statutory construction.

It is not the role of the Judicial branch to issue an interpretation because the Judge may agree or disagree with the public policy implications of a statute duly passed by our State’s elected representatives.

The Town’s actions in implementing unilateral changes to the wages, hours, and terms and conditions of employment, were unlawful…

The Town … unilaterally implemented sweeping changes to the employer/employee relationship. These changes included increasing the length of firefighters’ shifts from [ten and fourteen hours] to twenty-four (24) hours, increasing the number of hours each firefighter works per week, and decreasing the firefighters’ hourly pay. 

The Town now will be required to “unring the bell” and—as to wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment—go back to the state that existed pre-unilateral implementation. This Court recognizes that this process will be a large and costly undertaking. Furthermore, the Town may also be required to compensate the firefighters for the period since those unilateral changes were made.

Given the financial implications of the ruling, the judge granted the town a stay of 30 days to decide upon an appeal or reach agreement with the firefighters.

Here is a copy of the decision. 12.15.2012NKDecision

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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