[Copyrighted Material Omitted]
Providence County Superior Court WC 12-542. Associate Justice Brian P. Stern.
For Town: Daniel K. Kinder, Esq.
For Union: Elizabeth A. Wiens, Esq.
Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.
These consolidated appeals arise out of a decision
of the Superior Court issuing various declaratory and injunctive relief in a
highly contested labor dispute between the Town of North Kingstown (town) and
the North Kingstown Firefighters, Local 1651, International Association of
Firefighters, AFL-CIO (union). For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we
affirm in part and reverse in part the decision of the Superior Court.
Facts and Travel
The 2010 Expired Collective Bargaining Agreement
On June 30, 2010, a labor contract that had been in effect between the town and the union since July 1, 2007, expired. Prior to the expiration of that agreement, the parties had attempted to negotiate a successor contract, but to no avail. Subsequently, an interest arbitration panel was convened to set forth the terms of a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the parties. After thirteen days of hearings and after sifting through 172 exhibits and 357 pages of post-hearing briefs, the panel issued an award on August 9, 2011. The panel's award was retroactive, covering the period from July 1, 2010 to June 30, 2011.
One of the more critical and contentious issues that arose during this interest arbitration was the town's proposal to reorganize from a four-platoon structure to a three-platoon structure. The town made clear at the arbitration that, if allowed to effectuate this reorganization, it would not press other of its proposals that would have made structural changes to the operation of the fire department. However, the town's proposal on this issue was rejected by the panel, and the award provided for the same work schedule as the prior CBA.
Implementation of the Three-Platoon Structure and North Kingstown I
On February 23, 2011, the union wrote to the North Kingstown town manager requesting that collective bargaining negotiations commence for a new CBA year 2011-2012 in accordance with G.L. 1956 § 28-9.1-6. The parties exchanged a series of communications and eventually on October 28, 2011, met to bargain for a successor agreement. Five additional negotiating sessions were conducted, but the parties were unable to reach an agreement. Throughout the negotiations, the key issue of contention between the parties was the implementation of the three-platoon structure and the accompanying twenty-four hours on, forty-eight hours off work schedule. At the end of the sessions, no agreement was reached, and no issues were submitted to interest arbitration.
On December 19, 2011, the town wrote to the union indicating that it intended to introduce an ordinance to reorganize the fire department. Two subsequent negotiating sessions were conducted. However, no agreement was reached. Then, on January 30, 2012, the town council enacted, in amended form, an ordinance that authorized the town's desired implementation of the department reorganization. Another negotiating session was held after that, but no agreement was reached.
On February 28, 2012, the union filed suit in the Washington County Superior Court seeking: (1) a declaratory judgment that the ordinance was invalid because it was passed in violation of the town charter; (2) a declaratory judgment that the town violated the Firefighters Arbitration Act (FFAA or the Act) and the State Labor Relations Act (SLRA); and (3) injunctive relief. Prior to issuing a decision on the merits, the Superior Court ordered the parties to engage in mediation, which failed to resolve the matter. On March 11, 2012, the town began implementing the ordinance, including the three-platoon structure and accompanying schedule.
On May 23, 2012, the Superior Court issued a written decision declaring that, because it was passed in violation of the town charter, the ordinance was invalid. See International Association of Firefighters, Local 1651, AFL-CIO v. Town of North Kingstown, WC 2012-127, 2012 WL 1948338 (R.I. S.Ct. May 23, 2012) (North Kingstown I). Additionally, the Superior Court found that, even if that ordinance had been properly passed, it was still " invalid because it conflicts with the FFAA by imposing changes to wages, hours, and terms and conditions of employment without first bargaining to agreement or following the FFAA's statutory arbitration procedures." However, the Superior Court explicitly recognized that:
" [T]he platoon structure of the Fire Department is a management right that may be properly asserted at the expiration of the CBA [and that] [g]oing forward the parties may agree to a new CBA that addresses the effects of this management change on mandatory bargaining subjects or proceed to interest arbitration, solely to determine the effects on mandatory bargaining subjects and not the management decision itself."
Nevertheless, the court found that " unilateral implementation of changes to wages, hours and terms and conditions of employment" was improper.
North Kingstown II