Days before fire dept. overhaul, Providence claims union contract is ‘void and unenforceable’

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Lawyers for Rhode Island’s capital city have told a Superior Court judge they believe the city’s current firefighters’ union contract is invalid, arguing that the Providence City Council had no legal right to agree to a long-term deal in 2011.

In court documents filed late Wednesday evening, the Elorza administration asked Judge Jeffrey A. Lanphear to deny the union’s request to go to arbitration over the city’s plan to restructure its fire department, claiming the contract that allows for such negotiations is “void and unenforceable.”

“There is no valid, enforceable arbitration agreement between the city and the union covering the disputes raised in the union’s arbitration demand because the [collective bargaining agreement] cited by the union and the general arbitration clause contained theirin have expired,” Timothy Cavazza, a lawyer for the city, wrote.

In his filing, Cavazza also argued that the matter should not be referred to arbitration because the city has a non-delegable right to organize its fire department. He said a grievance filed by the union is invalid because its seeks to “arbitrate the non-arbitrable” department reorganization. In another section of the filing, he said the union has “irrevocably waived” its right to interest arbitration because it didn’t file a request in a timely manner.

The city has set a Saturday deadline for reaching an agreement with Local 799 of the International Association of Firefighters to move from four platoons to three, a plan that will require firefighters to go from working an average of 42 hours per week to an average of 56 hours. Implementation will begin Sunday unless a deal is reached, according to Evan England, a spokesman for the city.

Under the city’s current four-platoon system, there were only 100 members on each platoon, during the fiscal year that ended June 30. (That number has plummeted in recent weeks because at least 44 firefighters have retired since Mayor Jorge Elorza announced his plans to make the changes in May, England said.)

Because the fire union contract requires 94 firefighters on duty at all times, a platoon of roughly 100 members means just six have to be absent from work before members of other platoons are called in, earning overtime, or callback pay. The city spent an average of $9 million annually on callback since 2009,

Elorza claims the changes would save the city millions of dollars each year because moving to three platoons would nearly eliminate the need for callback because platoon sizes would grow above 120 members. Paul Doughty, the union president, has argued that the city has gone over its callback budget because it has failed to hire enough firefighters in recent years.

In June, Doughty asked Judge Lanphear to block the city from implementing its plan until a deal was in place. He also asked the judge to allow the matter to go to arbitration. Lanphear has scheduled a status conference on the matter for Aug. 3, a day after the city plans to implement its three-platoon system.

Although the state Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that platoon and shift structures are considered a management right, Doughty has said his union’s situation is different because it has a contract in place until June 30, 2017.

The city now claims that agreement doesn’t apply.

In 2011, the City Council ratified a contract with the firefighters that spanned from July 1, 2011 to June 30, 2013 as well as a second agreement that went from July 1, 2013 to June 30, 2016, plans that were both supported by former Mayor Angel Taveras. Taveras and the council later tacked on a sixth year to the deal as part of a pension reform agreement with the union.

But Elorza’s lawyers claim state law does not allow municipalities to approve union contracts beyond three years unless a budget commission or receiver has been appointed for the city, something that has never happened in Providence.

It is unclear what the Elorza administration’s argument means for the pension reform ordinance that was agreed to in 2013, but a spokesman for the mayor said it believes the pension changes can remain in tact.

In a text message, Doughty declined to comment on the city’s claim.

Elorza initially said the city could save at least $5 million annually by moving to a three-platoon structure, but he’s backed away from those projections because the actual figure depends on how much of a pay increase firefighters receive for working an additional 14 hours per week.

This report will be updated throughout the day.

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Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan

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