Firefighters counter arbitration criticism leveled by panel

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In an interview following an article that covered the Rhode Island League of Cities and Town’s panel discussion of the state’s binding arbitration process, the state firefighters union has responded strongly to criticisms levied against it, which they claim were unfair and disingenuous.

“To some degree, what the attorneys said didn’t surprise me, because I view them as they were salesmen. They were there at that forum to get themselves hired,” said Joseph A. Andriole, president of the Rhode Island State Association of Firefighters. “If they truly, at that forum, wanted to be objective and look at the process, they would have had a balance on that panel.”

Andriole is referring to the three-person panel that spoke during a breakout session at the 18th Annual Convention of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns at the Crowne Plaza in Warwick on Jan. 25.

The panel consisted of Vincent Ragosta Jr., Timothy Bliss, both attorneys who have been involved in arbitration negotiations between Rhode Island municipalities and labor organizations. The third panelist, Vijay Kappor, was also an attorney with a financial background who gave a presentation on how municipal leaders can better prepare better financial presentations for arbitration sessions to achieve a more desirable outcome.

The panelists spared no criticism of the arbitration process, and Ragosta was particularly critical of both the process itself, saying it should “be avoided at all costs,” and of fire unions as well, referring to the International Association of Firefighters (the national union that encompasses the state fire union and all the local municipality unions) as a “virtual cartel.”

“I find that word very divisive,” Andriole said. “I can see that maybe he’s frustrated because maybe he’s unhappy with his own work product or the results that he’s getting, but to say something derogatory about your counterpart on the other side, I think was very disingenuous and truly beneath him.”

Ragosta said that the arbitration process was flawed due to a few reasons, including how unions will regularly bring up arbitration decisions from way back when the process was first initiated in 1961 to argue their case, no matter what the current municipality’s situation.

Additionally, Ragosta and Bliss agreed that unions will often put forward multiple, sometimes as many as a dozen, different proposals for negotiations – only to drop the majority of them after the municipal side has spent time preparing rebuttals for those proposals; in essence to waste time and money and drag out the process.

Andriole argued that such tactics were not limited to labor unions, and that arbitrators are mutually chosen and agreed upon by either side during an arbitration process (barring an administrative appointment when neither side can agree to one person), so getting a more positive or negative outcome through arbitration comes down simply to preparing a better case.

“I think it’s important for both sides to have that [tactic available to them]. The cities and towns have that same ability,” he said. “All of the data we use is all public record. There is no magic wand here that makes us win the case. What makes us win the case is we put on strong cases that have strong merit behind them, and the other side does not.”

Andriole estimated, stemming from his nearly 30 years of experience in labor negotiations, that only 10 percent of labor disputes must resort to the arbitration process. He argued that, while the panel said that unions use the arbitration process as leverage to gain themselves a better outcome, municipalities could be accused of that same charge.

“In my opinion, the cities and towns use the threat of going to arbitration as leverage,” he said. “I’ve seen cities and towns threaten arbitration to try to get a better deal and leverage the union into a compromise that is more suited for the city or the town. I have seen them use arbitration as a way to, for a lack of a better term, to shake the tree and get some people to retire.”

Another criticism levied by the panel of attorneys was that unions utilize members during arbitration who aren’t trained in legal matters during the process, which creates difficulties when dealing with the complex legal and financial issues that arise during a collective bargaining negotiation.

Andriole countered that by saying that it is a relatively recent development that municipalities have utilized outside counsel to handle labor negotiations, and that doing so costs more tax dollars – he estimated in the range of $100,000 or more for each contract – and results in a muddying and complication of the process that used to be primarily handled in-house.

“I think we use laypeople to, A; control the cost, and I think we use laypeople because our people are passionate and know our subject matter,” he said. “So I would suggest to the cities and towns that, maybe if they got their fire chiefs more involved in the process, and their mayors more involved in the process or their city solicitors more involved, going to outside counsel is, to me, just throwing taxpayer money out the window.”

In response to Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena, who suggested during the Jan. 25 panel discussion that arbitrators should be limited to only retired Rhode Island judges, magistrates or attorneys, Andriole said that this would be like a municipality limiting themselves to hiring a city solicitor who is from that city or town – rather than choosing the most qualified person for the job.

“My argument would be that maybe they need to be hired by cities and towns based on their experience,” he said. “I like to go in front of an arbitrator that neither side knows, that are picked on their neutrality, their credentials and their qualifications – versus someone that we personally know or maybe the cities or towns have a personal relationship with.”

In summation, Andriole said that the process does not favor either side. He believes it is a neutral process that is necessary to bring both sides to an agreement, for better or worse. He also said it is an important part of the bargaining process in Rhode Island since public safety departments cannot legally strike.

“I don’t think that the process is a problem,” he said. “I think that the other side doesn’t like some of the results that they’re getting – but that’s because they’re not putting on good cases.”

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