A Tentative Agreement Is Not The Same As A Contract

When the firefighters employed by the Coventry, Rhode Island Fire District selected Local 3240 of the International Association of Fire Fighters as their representative, bargaining started between the District and Local 3240. The bargaining concluded during a meeting on December 9, 2002.

The meeting was stormy at times, with Local 3240’s representatives, angry at the District’s position on wages, leaving the room and declaring the negotiations to be over. Eventually, things got back on track and the parties reached a “Tentative Agreement.”

The Tentative Agreement, drafted by the District’s lead negotiator, was initialed by both sides. Subsequently, Local 3240 discovered what it believed to be several differences between what was discussed at the December 9 meeting and what was placed by the District in the Tentative Agreement. The District responded by indicating that it would be willing to amend any typographical errors in the Tentative Agreement, but would not make any substantive changes.

In response, Local 3240 declared impasse and referred the negotiations to arbitration. The District responded by filing an unfair labor practice charge with the Rhode Island State Labor Relations Board, alleging that Local 3240 violated its duty to bargain in good faith when it refused to sign the final version of the Tentative Agreement.

In 2004, the Board voted on the issue of whether to dismiss or uphold the District’s unfair labor practice charge. The vote resulted in a three-three split decision. As a result, the Board concluded that because there was neither a majority to uphold or dismiss the complaint, the matter would be dismissed on procedural grounds. The District appealed the decision into the Rhode Island court system, seeking an order forcing the Board to order Local 3240 to sign the Tentative Agreement.

The Rhode Island Superior Court refused the District’s request. The Court found that there was conflicting evidence as to the extent to which the parties would be bound by the Tentative Agreement. In particular, the Court cited the testimony of Local 3240’s president, who repeatedly indicated that he did not believe he was entering into a binding agreement by initialing the Tentative Agreement. When questioned about his understanding of the Tentative Agreement, the Union president testified that it meant “that I would have to bring them back to my membership and research the articles I signed. I remember saying that at the end of the day I would have to review the Tentative Agreement with the men.”

While the Court acknowledged that there was contrary testimony from the District’s representative, who believed that the full authority to accept the agreement resided with Local 3240’s negotiators at the bargaining table, the Court held that “there was sufficient evidence in the record for members of the Board to fail to reach an agreement, thereby resulting in a tied vote. It appears that one half of the sitting members of the Board found the District’s testimony and evidence more credible than that of Local 3240. The other half of the Board appears to have reached the opposite conclusion. For those who believe the District, there was evidence to support a conclusion that there had been an offer and an acceptance to form a binding agreement; thus, when the Union failed to sign the agreement, it committed an unfair labor practice. On the other hand, others who believed the Union president to be more credible could have found that a binding agreement was not formed because the president testified that he told the District that the Tentative Agreement needed to be ratified and was not binding on December 9.”

Given the conflicting stories, the Court found that there was no error of law in the Board’s decision dismissing the District’s complaint.

Coventry Fire District v. Rhode Island State Labor Relations Board, 2005 WL 2883170 (R.I.Super. 2005).

This article appears in the January 2006 issue