Sides divided on extending expired city labor contracts

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Should municipal employees and teachers in Rhode Island have their contracts automatically extended while new contracts are negotiated?

That is the question being mulled by the Rhode Island House of Representatives currently, as they prepare to debate Bill H5593, which “Requires that the contractual provisions contained in and an otherwise expired collective bargaining agreement with certified school teachers and municipal employees continue until a successor agreement has been reached between the parties.”

The bill was introduced by Rep. Camille Vella-Wilkinson (D-District 21, Warwick) and is co-sponsored by Rep. Moira Walsh (D-District 3, Providence) and Rep. Robert Jacquard (D-District 17, Cranston). It has been recommended for approval and now awaits to be discussed on the House floor.

“This bill is actually a bill of equity,” said Vella-Wilkinson. “What this bill takes into account is, number one, to make sure everyone is negotiating fairly, and it also takes into account the best interest of the taxpayers.”

Vella-Wilkinson said the bill aims to take contractual disputes back to a more amicable time. She said the bill would force both sides in a contract dispute to participate in fair negotiations.

“If you're a member of the negotiating team and you're going to have to live with this contract until it is superseded by another contract, are you going to give away the house?” Vella-Wilkinson said. “And let’s say they do ask for the store. Who says management is going to agree to that? Management is acting as if the cards are stacked in the favor of labor. That is not the case. Both parties have to agree, otherwise you don’t have the contract.”

The bill faces heavy opposition from lobbyists and municipal leaders that allege the bill will do the exact opposite – discourage contract negotiations and harm the taxpayers.

A letter from the League of Cities and Towns was released on June 20 in opposition to the bill, and was signed by mayors of Central Falls, Cranston, Cumberland, Johnston, North Providence, Pawtucket and Warwick, as well as town managers/administrators from Burrillville, Charlestown, Jamestown, Lincoln, North Smithfield, Smithfield, South Kingstown, West Warwick and Warren.

“The expiration date of collective bargaining agreements is a key component of contract negotiations,” the letter reads. “It motivates the parties to come together and resolve their issues prior to the close of the contract. If, for some reason, the parties do not complete negotiations prior to the contract expiration, we believe that they should be able to extend contracts temporarily if both parties agree.”

The letter further alleges that, if the bill were successfully adopted, it would discourage unions from signing any new contracts that included less favorable terms for their members, even if economic conditions required the unions to make concessions.

“The evergreen contracts proposal in the General Assembly…it’s certainly bad news for any city and town, whether it’s on the city side or even on the school side,” said Cranston Mayor Allan Fung. “It creates a situation of perpetual contracts, particularly with respect to the financials that cities and towns can’t afford and it will be stifling from a management perspective. It’s not something that's needed, and sadly the unions are pressing this at a time when it's the end of the session. Certainly we are united as cities and towns in opposition to any such proposal.”

Cranston State Rep. Robert Lancia (R-District 16, Cranston) initially signed on to the bill and said supported it in a letter to Cranston Teachers Alliance President Liz Larkin dated June 13, but he pulled his name off the bill after seeing the opposition against it.

“Everybody was coming out against it,” Lancia said. "I didn’t realize the ramifications of that bill initially. Vella-Wilkinson came up to me asking if I would sign on to the bill, at the time I signed it I didn’t realize the ramifications of the bill and, after listening to testimony, it was going to cost too much for the schools and cities and towns.”

In response to the opposition, Vella-Wilkinson offered a direct retort.

“For the towns and cities to come against it, I find very disingenuous,” she said. “They’re acting as if they’re not original parties to the agreement. The fact of the matter is this bill keeps everyone on the up and up. It prevents administrators from deciding to ‘give away the farm’ because by the time the next contract is up for renewal, perhaps they'll be out of office. It prevents them from not negotiating with the taxpayer's best interest in mind so they can garner additional monetary support or labor support during the elections, and so forth.”

It has also been alleged that, should the bill pass, it would open up opportunities for teachers who had previously been fired to revisit grievances and successfully appeal their dismissal, letting them back into their previous teaching positions.

Again, Vella-Wilkinson brushed off this criticism as a scare tactic.

“If management does the appropriate action in taking the time to document [the incident] and provides a training plan to get the individual back on track – if they do all the steps they’re required to and the employee continues to be a bad actor, then they have the ability to terminate,” she said. “This bill is not going to change that at all. It seems to me they're throwing the kitchen sink at this. They're trying to prick every potential fear that the general public may have with regards to this.”

When asked if the bill would further delay Warwick contract negotiations that have been ongoing for over two years, Vella-Wilkinson promptly denied it.

“I've had the opportunity to speak with Mayor Avedisian a couple of weeks ago and he said they were making progress,” she said, following up by saying that this bill has larger implications than just one city. “Right now we’re in the throes of a significant problem with the contracts in Warwick. This could be East Providence, it could be North Kingstown; this could be occurring in any town or city.”

Representative Jacquard stated that the bill is an opportunity to show teachers that the public supports their efforts to educate, even though, in his view, charter schools and increased expectations have made the job increasingly difficult in recent decades.

“We need good teachers in this state and we need to support them,” Jacquard said. “They have been under fire. I think this is a really small thing to be able to give them to say that we care about the work they’re doing for our children and we want them to be able to do that work without the worry that they’re not going to have the benefit of a contract between them and their employer honored.”

(This story includes reports from Jacob Marrocco)

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