Superior Court Judge Brian Stern ruled against the Town of North Kingstown in nearly every respect in the case over the town's decision to unilaterally impose a new 24-hour shift schedule on firefighters in March 2012.On Monday,
On Tuesday, the town's labor lawyer, Dan Kinder, submitted this assessment of the ruling to town officials:
The court's decision is no surprise. The Labor Board adopted Judge Stern's prior decision in its decision. Now, Judge Stern has upheld that decision, again. The Supreme Court, however, has stayed Judge Stern's prior decision, and Judge Stern has stayed this decision, pending further consideration by the Supreme Court.
The decision to uphold the Labor Board is at odds with several important earlier decisions of the Rhode Island Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court.
The decision sets up the firefighters' union as a branch of government that can veto the lawful actions of a municipal government, taken to protect all its citizens in time of economic crisis. The only precedent for this view is a 20-year-old decision of the State Labor Relations Board. The Supreme Court has said that labor board decision is wrong. The Town Council believes that this decision is contrary to the Rhode Island Constitution, and contrary to the North Kingstown Charter, as ratified by its citizens and adopted by the legislature.
The town bargained thoroughly and in good faith in an effort to gain agreement with the union to reduce the costs of the fire department's operations. All decisions of the National Labor Relations Board and of the Rhode Island Supreme Court and the US Supreme Court support the Town in this. The decision's conclusion that a sovereign government does not bargain in good faith when it tells a union it must act to protect its citizens and then bargains for months over the ways and means by which it will do so is novel and unprecedented. It is also contrary to established decisions of the Supreme Court.
Remember that all this to do is about the town's adoption of an organizational structure for its fire department that is the same as what the overwhelming majority of fire fighters in America enjoy. The Town's costs for fire fighting, like most Rhode Island communities', are far higher than the rest of the nation. Three consecutive Town Councils concluded that this had to change. It was simply unaffordable.
The Town has offered repeatedly to bargain with the union, and offered to make changes to the firefighters' schedules if they didn't like the one they have worked for the last two years. The union's response? Pay us $2million first, and then maybe we can talk. No other Town union has refused to help with the financial crisis that began in 2008.
Both the union and the Town have retained experts in the past. The one thing all agreed on was that the current work schedule in the fire department is safer than the old one was.
The Superior Court decision invites an appeal to the Supreme Court. The Town Council will consider filing an appeal soon. In the meantime, pursuant to the order of the Court, the firefighters' work schedule, and the 10% salary increase they received two years ago, remain in effect.
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