Labor can celebrate a victory over management after a R.I. Supreme Court decision last month preserved the 50-year tradition of using union reps, rather than licensed attorneys, to argue labor-arbitration cases. Had the court ruled differently, all of Rhode Island’s labor unions, both public and private, might have been required to hire attorneys to argue arbitration cases, potentially adding thousands of dollars to the cost of such labor disputes.
Those on the victorious side believe that’s the very reason this case went to the state’s Supreme Court – to drive up the cost as a way to deter labor unions from taking grievances to arbitration. Those on the other side say it’s the right thing to do; these are complex proceedings that look and feel like legal matters, with presentation of evidence, cross-examination and formal briefs.
“It was a way to quiet the voice of the working person,” said Joseph Andriole, the central figure in the case. Andriole is vice president of the Rhode Island State Association of Firefighters, an association representing most of the firefighters’ unions in this state. He is also an arbitration specialist, with 25 years of experience in that arena. In his current role, he argues a new arbitration case on behalf of firefighters a couple times per month. One of those cases three years ago launched this Supreme Court decision.
In February of 2009, the Little Compton firefighters’ union filed two grievances against the town, alleging violations of minimum staffing levels and failure to fill a vacant position. In response, Little Compton’s fire chief, then its town council, denied the grievances. The union then filed for arbitration, per the procedures spelled out in its contract with the town.
Before the arbitration case could be heard, Little Compton filed a motion in Newport Superior Court to prevent Andriole from representing the union in the arbitration case. The town claimed the union was violating state law by using a layman in a legal matter, alleging Andriole would be engaged in the unlawful practice of law. In doing so, the town was challenging a decades-old tradition in Rhode Island.