North Kingstown Firefighters Prevail Again

There has been another decision favoring the North Kingstown Firefighters, IAFF Local 1651 in the contentious battle with town over switching from a four-shift 42 hour work-week to a three-shift fifty-six hour work-week without negotiating or compensating them for the extra hours.

Yesterday, Judge Brian J. Stern issued a 54 page decision upholding the Rhode Island State Labor Relations Board’s ruling last September that found the Town of North Kingstown engaged in bad-faith bargaining and committed an unfair labor practice.

The case was before Judge Stern on a petition by the State Labor Relations Board to order the town to comply with its September 27, 2013 ruling. Given the fact that the parties had six other cases against each other pending in superior court, the presiding justice consolidated them and assigned the entire mess to Judge Stern.

The Town argued that the Labor Board lacked the jurisdiction to issue the ruling  because (1) by filing grievances over the numerous contractual violations the town committed the union could not also claim the city committed an unfair labor practice by bargaining in bad faith (the so-called election of remedies defense), (2) the firefighter’s arbitration act requires unresolved issues to go before an interest arbitration panel not the state labor board, and (3) the Town Charter supersedes state collective bargaining laws.

In a lengthy analysis Judge Stern dismissed all three of the town’s arguments and moved on to evaluate whether the ruling itself was lawful under the State Labor Relations Act (SLRA).

Section 28-7-20 of the SLRA empowers and directs the Labor Board "to prevent any employer, or public sector employee organization … from engaging in any unfair labor practice." … The SLRA vests the Labor Board with the authority to… order employers to cease and desist from such practices; reinstate with or without pay any employee whose work has ceased or whose return to work has been delayed or prevented as a result of any unfair labor practice; and, to take such further affirmative or other action as will effectuate the policies of the SLRA. … The Labor Board is also authorized under the SLRA to petition the Superior Court for process to enforce its orders against recalcitrant or noncomplying employers.

In upholding the Labor Board’s ruling, Judge Stern did strike down two provisions in the order, explaining his decision as follows:

The Labor Board does not have the authority under § 28-7-22 to issue an order contingent on the occurrence of a judicial happenstance. Accordingly, Paragraph 5 of the Labor Board's Order-directing the Town to participate in interest arbitration for the 2011-12 fiscal year only "if and when the Rhode Island Supreme Court overturns [this Court’s] decision finding a waiver of the Union's right to interest arbitration for the 2011-2012 year" in North Kingstown II-does not comply with § 28-7-22 of the SLRA and therefore falls outside of the Labor Board's § 28-7-20 authority. The Labor Board also Jacked the authority to issue Paragraph 7 of its order, and therefore this paragraph must also be vacated. The directive contained in Paragraph 7 is duplicitous with the content of Paragraph 6 of the Order: restoration and maintenance of the status quo "on all terms and conditions of employment that existed in the 2010-2011 collective bargaining agreement" necessarily precludes the unilateral implementation of "changes to the wages, rates of pay, hours, working conditions, or other terms and conditions of employment of the employees represented by the Union. In all other respects, however, the Labor Board's Order complies with the requirements of the law. …

Valid public policy considerations support the terms of the Labor Board's Order, and the Labor Board's Order is consistent with its own long-held position on the unilateral implementation of terms and conditions of employment in the public sector, which itself has sufficient basis in the law. …

The Labor Board concluded, as this Court does, per the discussion, supra, that the FF AA "do[es] not permit unilateral implementation of terms and conditions of employment under any circumstances, whether or not impasse has been reached and/or statutory dispute mechanisms have been exhausted."

Judge Stern agreed to stay implementation of his decision pending a ruling by the Rhode Island Supreme Court on a previously issued a stay. The Supreme Court issued the stay in one of the earlier cases on rather curious grounds: that Judge Stern had granted the union a remedy (restoring the status quo back to a four shift 42-hour work week) that it had not requested. That one still baffles me.

Here is a copy of the ruling:  North Kingstown Fire Decision 1-6-14

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 45 years of fire service experience and 35 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, 4th ed. 2022) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

Check Also

Hotel Owners Sue Fire District and Fire Marshal Over Closure

The owners of a California hotel have filed suit against a city, a fire protection district, a building inspector, and a fire marshal claiming they unlawfully “red tagged” the building resulting in economic damages in the millions. The owners filed suit against the City of Anderson, Anderson Fire Protection District, city building inspector Brad Hawkins, fire marshal Steven Allred alleging a violation of their constitutional rights.

Fire Law Headlines: New York and Miami-Dade Follow-Up

There are two cases in the Fire Law headlines today, both being follow-ups of cases we covered previously. In New York, the Supreme Court for Oswego County has ruled that individual taxpayers lack standing to challenge a tax increase imposed by a fire district.