End of the Sessioner #1: The Firefighting Bills and the Withering Away of Rhode Island Democracy


One issue that has been lost in the all of the discussion about platoon structure and overtime costs in Providence is that one firefighter’s union in Rhode Island, in Central Coventry, has already agreed to a major overtime reduction plan that includes a 3-platoon structure and a 56-hour work-week, plus a requirement that an individual employee work 212 hours in a 28-day period before overtime begins and a department-wide hard-cap on the amount of time-and-a-half overtime paid out in a given year. (Details of the Central Coventry plan are available here).

The Central Coventry Fire District, you may recall, is currently in receivership, with the functions of its elected board having been replaced by a state appointed receiver, who is not accountable to the residents of the district. Originally, Central Coventry union President David Gorman pledged to outlawyer and outspend and outfight the receiver, but according to receiver Mark Pfeiffer, the union has agreed to all of the changes that have been presented to the public.

How events played out Central Coventry raises serious questions for both Providence and all of Rhode Island. For years, Rhode Islanders have been told that limits on firefighting overtime are difficult to overlay onto existing departments, but Central Coventry has shown that reform is very straightforward. However, had the same system designed by the unaccountable receiver been proposed by an elected government, it is hard to believe that the Central Coventry union would have as quickly accepted it, if they accepted it at all.  To an outside observer, it appears that the Central Coventry union was willing to show much more flexibility to a leader unaccountable to those who pay the taxes than it was willing to show to their elected representatives, and this is not a healthy situation for a democratic polity.

Unfortunately, some members of the General Assembly want to reinforce the marginalization of democratic control over public services that is sadly acceptable to both Rhode Island’s union leadership and Rhode Island’s insider and managerial elites, via a pair of bills that would deny elected municipal authorities the power to set policies concerning platoon structure and overtime policy. Instead of making decisions, civil authorities would be reduced to asking for deals when trying to exercise basic command authority in these major areas.  Try to imagine a system like this working further down the chain-of-command where, for example, a captain has to make a deal with members of his platoon when he wants something significant done.  It wouldn’t work very well.

In Rhode Island parlance, this is frequently labeled as an issue of “management rights”, but that is an overly business-bourgeois conceptualization of the problem, and fails to capture the true magnitude of what is at stake. The real issue is whether we are a society where basic democratic control is exercised over the government chain-of-command or we are something else and something worse.

Limiting elected executives to asking for deals instead of making decisions concerning basic operations places a department beyond executive control and, where the executive is democratically accountable, beyond democratic control. Ultimately, a people who believe in democracy will come to view a part of government outside of direct control of elected officials as just another special interest that has latched on to government for its own advantage, and whose every claim should be treated with maximum skepticism. In case you haven’t noticed, this is the unpleasant dynamic that has been playing out in Rhode Island over the past several years, and fire unions and their allies in the legislature continuing to take stances that show contempt for democratic and civilian control of government at the operational level will only make this situation worse. The surest way to begin to reverse this is for firefighter unions to stop trying to change the rules of the political system every time they don’t get their way, and make clear they fully accept democratic accountability, just like the rest of the citizenry does.

Providence and the state legislature, is one set of places where the next stage of this will play out, but also keep your eye on Coventry, where we may soon see if an elected board can get the same level of cooperation from a fire union that was willing to accept major change from an unelected authority.

  • Mike678

    Funny. Sen Sheehan is against charter schools as they are, in his words, “taxation without Representation”–which is a great saying but has no applicability to charters. Yet he supports this legislation which, from the Coventry situation, is classic taxation without representation. Apparently our Representatives lack logic skills.