Corrigan calls such pay “unlawful.”

By Elizabeth F. McNamara

East Greenwich, R.I. – Town Manager Gayle Corrigan has notified the town’s unions that the town will no longer compensate union officers for most union-related work – known as bargaining pay – calling such payments “unlawful.” She cites R.I. General Law 28-7-13(3)(iii).

Union heads were sent the letter in January. The firefighters union has since filed an unfair labor practice complaint on the issue with the state Labor Relations Board.

Corrigan’s letter was ambiguous. After first saying the town “will no longer compensate employees for services performed on behalf of a labor organization,” she writes, “employees may still permitted[sic] to confer with the town during working hours without loss of time or pay, to the extent such conferences are authorized….”

“It is a direct violation of our collective bargaining agreement,” said firefighter union President Bill Perry. “Just more litigation the town has chosen to take which will cost tens of thousands of dollars in litigation costs.”

Find Corrigan’s letter here (exhibit 2): Exhibits in FF Response.

Although the letter was sent to all four town unions, these sorts of expenses typically are only accrued by police and firefighters. That’s because police and fire have minimum-manning levels so if a union official attends a grievance hearing or an arbitration during his or her regular shift, the department must bring in someone to cover.

While the amount of money that costs in overtime will vary depending on the level of contentiousness in a given year (i.e. the number of grievances filed, litigation, etc.), Perry said the added expense averages around $5,000 a year for the fire department. He added the overtime expense only happens when something is scheduled when a union official is on duty. If an arbitration or grievance hearing is scheduled during a time when the union official is not working, there is no need to incur the expense of bringing in someone to cover.

Meanwhile, the town – which filed suit against the firefighters in December –filed a “motion on the pleadings” earlier this month, looking for Superior Court Judge Susan McGuirl to rule on bargaining pay as well as the larger issue of the town’s ability to impose a 56-hour work week on the firefighters. If the judge grants a motion on the pleadings, she would make her ruling only on the town’s original complaint (and the firefighters response, which has yet to be filed). In other words, there would be no additional “discovery” (i.e. information) and no trial. (Find the motion here: Town of EG Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings.)

There is a hearing on the town’s motion scheduled for Monday, April 23.

The main thrust of the town’s argument on the 56-hour work week is that it is a “management right” to make such schedule changes. Under such a change, the motion argues, the town and the union would then need to negotiate “the effects of the town’s decision to implement a three-platoon structure.” That would come down to compensation. According to Town Manager Corrigan, the reason to go to a three-platoon system is to cut down overtime expenses. It’s unclear how the town would be willing to compensate the firefighters for the additional work hours expected under the three-platoon structure. The firefighters have said they would expect to be paid for the extra hours.

The town’s motion relies heavily on what happened in North Kingstown a few years ago, where that Town Council voted to implement a three-platoon system and the state Supreme Court eventually ruled the Town Council acted within its rights because the firefighters were without a contract at the time of the vote. In East Greenwich, the firefighters’ contract is not up until 2019.

The town’s motion also argues that the section in the firefighters’ “current collective bargaining agreement stating the town must compensate up to three elected union officials ‘for bargaining unit business in connection with conferences with its attorney or union representative regarding contract negotiation matters and/or arbitration matters concerning the collective bargaining agreement,’ is unlawful, unenforceable and void.”

It makes the same argument regarding other union-related business, such as grievance arbitration and hearings, conferences with union membership, and any state or national union meetings.

With the town’s motion in Superior Court and the firefighters’ complaint before the state Labor Relations Board, it’s conceivable that there could be two different rulings.

The motion was signed by Town Solicitor David D’Agostino and outside lawyer Tim Cavazza. D’Agostino receives a monthly retainer of $11,000 for his East Greenwich work. Cavazza and his firm (Whelan, Corrente, Flanders, Kinder & Siket) were hired in late summer 2017 to work on firefighter labor issues. The town has so far paid $104,000 to Whelan, Corrente, for legal services through November.

Meanwhile, last week the town paid firefighter lawyer Wiens $41,905 in legal fees for the six-day trial last fall in which, among other rulings against the town, McGuirl said it had illegally fired firefighter James Perry. Town Council President Sue Cienki had said the town would consider an appeal but no appeal was filed before the deadline earlier this month.