North Kingstown firefighters got just about everything they could want from Superior Court Judge Brian Stern’s ruling Monday over the Town of North Kingstown’s imposition of a 24-hour shift schedule in 2011. Stern ruled the town was wrong when it said negotiations were at an impasse and it had the right to unilaterally impose a new 24-hour shift schedule on the NK Fire IAFF Local1651.
Stern read highlights from his 54-page decision for more than 30 minutes. But at the end of his recitation, he said he was staying the ruling (delaying its imposition) pending review of the entire matter by the state Supreme Court. In other words, nothing immediate will happen to reverse the shift schedule as a result of Stern’s ruling.
The town imposed the 24-hour shift schedule on firefighters in January 2012, citing potential savings of $1 million the first year. Under the system, firefighters work 24 hours on, 48 hours off. Before that, they had worked two 10-hour days and two 10-hour nights, with four days off.
The town had argued it was able to impose the schedule because contract negotiations were at an impasse.
Judge Stern, alternatively, said state law prohibits the town from declaring an impasse and acting unilaterally.
“There’s no opt-out of mandatory binding arbitration,” he said Monday.
“Obviously, we’re incredibly happy with the result,” said union head Ray Furtado at the courthouse following the ruling. “It’s pretty clear that it reinforces our position all along. The town bargained in bad faith…. We’re hopeful that it does lead them back to the table, to bargain in good faith on a resolution to this whole situation.”
By Monday evening, Town Council President Liz Dolan had not yet been able to review the ruling – no town officials were at the courthouse when the decision was handed down – but she said Judge Stern’s ruling was not unexpected.
“What we expected was an adverse decision,” she said. “Ultimately it will be up to the Supreme Court.”
In December 2012, Stern ruled that the town did not have the right to implement a 24-hour work shift for its firefighters without first negotiating or winning in arbitration. He notably ordered town officials to "unring the bell" on the change in wages, hours and other work conditions that had been implemented earlier that year.
In February 2013, the town appealed that decision to the state Supreme Court and in May, that court stayed the Superior Court’s ruling to “unring the bell” until the larger issues were decided. Meanwhile, the union filed complaints of unfair labor practices with the state Labor Relations Board (LRB). In September, the LRB ruled in favor of the firefighters. The town appealed that ruling and sought a stay in its implementation; the stay was granted. Meanwhile, the various filings were combined into one case. Stern’s ruling Monday addressed that case.
The case will now go to the Supreme Court, which could issue a ruling by June.
Meanwhile, Furtado said the union had met with the town twice already to discuss the 2014-15 collective bargaining agreement.
"We’ve had two meetings and the last offer from the union to the town would bring this to a conclusion. It would return us to our safer shifts. It would erase close to $2 million in damages that are currently owed to us in back wages. We’re willing to make that sacrifice just to get this behind us and to move forward together as a community," he said. "We’re willing to make that sacrifice just to get this behind us and to move forward together as a community." Ed. Note: this paragraph was amended Jan. 7, 7:50 a.m.
The union estimates the town owes its members $2.8 million in back wages. Furtado said with the 12 percent interest decreed by the LRB, the total is in the mid-$3 million range.
The case now goes to the Supreme Court, which could rule by June.
Recent "Town vs. NKFF" stories include:
From Oct. 18: Supreme Court Denies Firefighter Motion
From Sept. 30: Labor Board Sides With Firefighters, Against 24-Hour Shifts