The decision of the House leadership not to override the governor’s veto of what has become known as the “evergreen bill” dealt a psychological blow to unions while local leaders applaud the decision.
Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena, who lobbied for the governor’s veto, said in a phone interview last week that he thought unions would delay contract talks if there were an override. He thought binding arbitration would even be preferable.
“If I don’t like an award from an arbitrator, I can always go to the Superior Court, appeal it, and then if they uphold the arbitration it goes to Supreme Court, but at least I have two avenues. With the lifetime contracts I might as well throw the keys on the table and say, ‘Here you go, run the place, I’m going on Slack’s Pond on my boat,” he said.
He was elated with the outcome Wednesday. He said “we” met with Mattiello at 1 p.m. Tuesday to express their opposition.
“I think the speaker understands. I suggested, if there is going to be a compromise next time around, that the mayors are a part of the conversation. We’re not anti-union; this is just so anti-taxpayers that it would tip the scales way over to the union side,” he said.
In an email Wednesday Mayor Scott Avedisian said, “The House deciding not to make action on the governor’s veto leaves the mediation and arbitration processes front and center.” He said it would be interesting to see if Warwick teachers agree to the arbitration ruling.
Up until Tuesday afternoon it was unclear whether House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello would bring an override before legislators even though the unions were strongly pressuring him and representatives to do so. According to reports, the unions mounted a $90,000 advertising campaign in support of the argument that the contracts of municipal unions should remain in force until a new pact is negotiated. Darlene Netcoh, president of the Warwick Teachers Union, in a Sept. 12 letter to legislators appealed for an override. Representatives said emails and calls were five-to-one in favor of an override.
Reasoning that the legislation would impair incentives to reach a contract and that the bill would push up costs that would be borne by taxpayers, town and city mayors and managers urged denial of the bill when it came up in the closing days of the session.
“I’m glad the speaker and the Senate president heard the concerns of the mayors and decided not to take up this issue,” said Cranston Mayor Allan Fung.
Despite opposition from cities and towns in late June, the House and the Senate approved the bill introduced by Warwick Representative and former Ward 3 Councilwoman Camille Vella-Wilkinson.
Governor Gina Raimondo sided with municipal leaders, vetoing the measure when it reached her desk.
In her veto message Raimondo said, “It ties the hands of our municipal leaders and ultimately binds our taxpayers to contracts that would never end. Rhode Island already has some of the highest property taxes in the country and I cannot support legislation that would increase this burden on everyday Rhode Islanders.”
An override seemed certain if Mattiello had put it on the calendar for Tuesday’s one-day session aimed at cleaning up a number of bills that had been passed by either the House or the Senate and were slated for a vote but went into limbo when the speaker ended the House session on June 30 before Tuesday’s 10 p.m. session, therefore became the focus of those supporting an override.
Raimondo was closely following developments and, when questioned at the CCRI Knight Campus Tuesday afternoon, said she heard the override wouldn’t come up. She remained cautious.
“We’ve been working hard to make sure they don’t override it. The mayors have been making a lot of noise. I feel good about it,” she said.
On Wednesday Netcoh said she was disappointed the House hadn’t taken up the override.
“The basic principle here is that this law would codify what has been labor practice in this state for 40 years. And it would just codify what the Rhode Island State Labor Relations Board ruled and the courts upheld in 1992,” she said. She went on to say teachers in the state, including Warwick teachers, frequently went on strike because their contracts expired and the school committees decided to violate it.
“Since 1992 there haven’t been any teachers’ strikes. And now here we are at the 25th anniversary of the big one in Warwick where teachers wound up in jail, and here we have a school committee again violating the terms and conditions of our agreement,” she said.
How close it came to an override is difficult to gauge. Some House members said an override “was in play until the last hour” with pressure coming from the Senate for an override.
No question there was Senate support for the bill.
Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey of Warwick thought the Senate would have overridden the veto had the House done so. He acknowledged some members “were pushing for an override” and that, like representatives, senators were being pressured for an override.
He found it ironic that Tim Duffy, executive director and lobbyist for the Rhode Island Association of School Committees who had strongly opposed binding arbitration on teacher contracts – a measure that passed the Senate but not the House a couple of years ago – would suggest binding arbitration as an alternative to the evergreen bill.
Asked what an override would have done for Warwick teacher contract talks McCaffrey said, “I think it could have potentially helped it.” He said teachers would have been at the table “knowing they have a contract.”
So far the court hasn’t agreed with the union and a finding by the state Labor Relations Board going back years that terms of the prior contract remain in effect until a new contract is in place. The court ruled in favor of the School Committee when the union challenged the administration’s action to layoff more than 20 teachers with the consolidation of secondary schools.
Additionally, the union has submitted more than two-dozen grievances under terms of the prior contract that the court is being asked to adjudicate. Superior Court Justice Jeffrey Lanphear was scheduled to make a ruling on those issues last month, but the hearing was postponed when attorneys for the union couldn’t be present.
Before leaving on a trade mission to Ireland last week, Mayor Avedisian told a Conimicut Village Association town meeting that he thought the sides were very close to an agreement last month and he had even gone so far as informing City Council President Joseph Solomon to expect a call. Avedisian would have been looking for Solomon’s read on possible additional city funding to close the deal.
Avedisian said talks broke down when the School Committee insisted that talks be confined to unresolved issues and the union wanted everything on the table. Since then Avedisian, who joined attorney Vincent Ragosta in an effort to mediate an agreement, has offered to bring the parties together again. The teachers have not responded.
Meanwhile, interest arbitration has concluded and arbitrator Michael Ryan is expected to render his findings within the next 30 days. Ryan disclosed to the parties his “leanings” and it was on the basis of those that the committee based its last offer of no retroactive pay increase for the first year of no contract followed by 2.5 percent retroactive for a part of last year followed by 3 percent raises for this year and the next two years. The offer was rejected, as was the union’s counter offer for 3 percent raises for each of the five years.
In an email Superintendent Philip Thornton said, “Never ending contracts are not in the best interest of any city or town. I am pleased to hear that the state legislators will not override the governor’s veto.”
Includes reports from Ethan Hartley, Jacob Marrocco and Tim Forsberg