There has been much written about the 24-hour schedule the North Kingstown firefighters were forced to switch to and I haven’t said much about it. You will continue to hear more about it over the weeks and months ahead with candidates taking a position on the issue, court cases, legal bills etc.
What I will say is that I am against the 24-hour schedule. I campaigned against it 2 years ago, I lobbied against it with the current Town Council and I voted against it.
The reason I am against it is that having worked in public safety for almost 22 years, I experienced the long shifts and time away from my family. I routinely worked extra shifts to support my family, and it usually involved several days of 16-hour shifts each week. Those shifts were hard enough on me and family so I can’t imagine being at work for 24 or 48 hours. Think about that for a minute. A firefighter goes to work on Monday morning at 7 a.m. He or she says goodbye to their family and they don’t return home until Wednesday morning. That’s just wrong.
One reason we are here is because the economy is bad and has been for years. Let’s be honest here. This problem was not caused by labor! Remember, the problem was caused by corporate greed. Labor became a convenient target.
Regular working people, including me, were taught by their parents that municipal jobs were a good, steady way to earn a living. You wouldn’t get rich but you would always have work and benefits, and you would earn yourself a pension. Regular working people include police officers, public works employees, teachers, firefighters and custodians, to name a few.
The reason these groups became a target is that their benefits and pensions radically multiplied in cost very quickly at no fault of their own. People looked to elected officials to lower costs, which they should. In North Kingstown, unions made concessions and departments started to function more efficiently with fewer employees. These are things that needed to happen, and as a result, costs were lowered even though pensions and benefits are still expensive. Most town employees pay a portion of their benefits. They all pay into their pensions and most pay a portion of their medical into retirement.
What happened to the North Kingstown Firefighters didn’t have to happen. Most of the working people who work for the town, including firefighters, live here and raise their kids here. Since the town decided to force the firefighters to work 24-hour shifts, there is an atmosphere of mistrust and there are definitely hard feelings.
It seems like we are at an impasse. The reason for the impasse is that members of the Town Council have taken a hardline stance against the fire union. We have pending legal fights at the Labor Relations Board and probably Superior Court at some point. We also have arbitration in our future. All of this costs tax payer dollars. The last arbitration with the fire union cost the town $250,000 in legal bills and $50,000 for expert witnesses. Our current battle over the 24-hour shift has already cost us tens of thousands, and that bill is only going to increase.
I don‘t think our current situation is sustainable. Since April we have paid out an average of more than $25,500 per pay period in overtime. Two North Kingstown firefighters recently quit and became firefighters in Warwick.
I think we can fix this. The firefighters are willing to make concessions like the other unions have. I would like to see the Town Council direct the town solicitor for labor to start negotiations with the fire union to forge a contract and put the firefighters back on their old schedule, which worked well for years.
If we are able to come up with an agreement with the fire union, we would potentially save hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal costs. As important as the savings, we can begin to repair the damage done to our relationship with the fire department.
If you agree with me, I urge you to email your Town Council at firstname.lastname@example.org to let us know how you feel.
North Kingstown Town Councilor