RI Supreme Court Issues Setback to North Kingstown Firefighters

The Rhode Island Supreme Court has dealt the firefighters in North Kingstown a serious setback in their battle with the town over an unprecedented increase in their hours from 42 to 56 per week.

The case has been in the news here on several occasions, beginning last year when the town unilaterally increased the hours that firefighters work each week from 42 hours to 56 hour per week.

For those not familiar with labor law 101, any unilateral change in “wages, hours, or other terms and conditions of employment” (unilateral meaning one side imposes the change without negotiating it) is illegal and an unfair labor practice. Changes to  mandatory subjects must be bargained – and wages and hours are two subjects that are about as mandatory as it gets.

The union challenged the move on a number of levels and not surprisingly has prevailed at each. Last December, Superior Court Judge Brian Stern “directed the town to “‘unring the bell … as to wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment [and to] go back to the state that existed pre-unilateral implementation.”

Facing a multi-million dollar bill to compensate the firefighters for all the extra hours they were forced to work, plus adding back an entire fourth shift that had been eliminated, the town appealed.

In a ruling last week the Rhode Island Supreme Court reversed Judge Stern on three grounds. First, the court concluded that Judge Stern’s order to “unring the bell” was – and I quote – “an unrequested mandatory injunction”.

The court did not elaborate on how it reached that conclusion the injunction was “unrequested” stating only in a footnote that “At the time the hearing justice issued his decision, the union had not yet filed an answer to the town’s amended complaint. This Court has consistently stated that ‘a party should not be granted relief that it did not request.’”

The court’s other two grounds for the reversal were that Superior Court lacks jurisdiction “to determine what, if any, agreement is in force between [management] and [a] union”, and that Judge Stern’s order was issued without requisite findings and notice to the town.

Did you ever find yourself in a school yard controlled by bullies, and it doesn’t matter what you do, the bullies are going to have their way?

Here is a copy of the ruling for anyone so inclined. Town of North Kingstown v IAFF Loacl 1651

The case has been returned back to Judge Stern for additional proceedings. The State Labor Board is also expected to rule on the town’s unilateral action.

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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