Anybody who has ever embarked on a hike that wound up being way more dangerous and lengthy than they expected (or prepared for) will understand the feeling of finally seeing your car sitting where you parked it, what seemed like an eternity ago, in the same spot and waiting to take you back home where a hot shower and dinner will follow.
It’s a feeling beyond simple happiness. It is momentous joy wrapped up in a blanket of adrenaline and relief – a physical and spiritual reinforcement that things are actually going to be okay when, at multiple points, that was anything but certain.
This is the feeling we at the Beacon have about the Warwick Teachers Union and the school committee finally coming to terms on a tentative agreement after more than two years of bitter, divisive negotiations. We almost don’t want to address the matter, afraid that it will flee once its presence is known – like a skittish, rarely seen species of deer – and vanish into thin air.
However, we see the car in the distance and, although it is called a “tentative” agreement for a reason, the only thing in between yesterday’s upheaval and tomorrow’s possibilities is some legal paperwork and an official vote of acceptance by the school committee and the union membership.
Unfortunately, no swooping signature of a pen or “aye” vote will erase the damage that this lapse between contracts has wrought. The trust between teachers and administrators has eroded to discouraging levels. The community is split between supporting its teachers and their union unconditionally (dangerous) and demonizing teachers on a general basis for the actions of their union (foolish).
We are hopeful that those who stood in the middle ground of the issue – those who understood that the contract negotiations were complex and involved much more than perceived greed over retroactive raises – will help bridge the divide between these two polarized sides. There were no “good guys” and “bad guys” in this slogging process – just people who all felt they were fighting for what was fair and right.
There is no doubt that this particular contract dispute will go down in state history and perhaps even show up in chapters of labor relations textbooks utilized in classrooms nationwide – but now that it is over, it is important we all learn from it, not just those in Warwick.
Some will point to the so-called “evergreen” contract bill, which passed the state legislature but was vetoed and not overridden by Governor Gina Raimondo, as a solution that simply makes sense and balances the negotiating table so that both sides can engage in contract talks in good faith. However, this solution is by no means perfect, as it would discourage unions and their negotiating counterparts from ever budging on terms that they deem preferable – since the contracts would never expire, there is no ticking clock as an impetus.
A possible solution floated by Mayor Scott Avedisian – who should be applauded for his persistence and steady leadership during what was, at many times, an incredibly difficult labor relations process – could potentially serve as a good middle ground between the evergreen concept and what we have now.
Under this concept, collectively bargained agreements would have to be renewed six months before they are set to expire, or penalties could be levied against both parties of the contract. It would provide the necessary motivation to get to the table and hammer out a new deal before entering the wasteland of working under an expired contract, which, as we have seen, is no condition for healthy dialogue or negotiations.
Now that there is an agreement, the city of Warwick can hopefully start to repair and move on. The contract was a necessary first step in addressing the city’s educational issues – but there are nastier, costlier and more complicated hiking trails looming in the future. Only by working together will we make it back to the car.