This summer, there was good news and bad news for public employees. RI Gov. Gina Raimondo vetoed legislation that would have kept their labor contracts in effect while a new contract is under negotiation. But the governor allowed a measure to make it easier for police and firefighters to get tax-free disability pensions. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay says Raimondo may have gotten her priorities wrong on these bills.
Rhode Islanders of a certain age remember teacher strikes as an annual September ritual, as predictable as leaves turning color. At the time, Rhode Island teacher unions were seen as one of the nation’s most militant, Teamsters with book bags.
Those days are gone. Teachers still have decent wages and benefits, but their unions no longer have the Statehouse clout they once held. Exhibit A is the 2011 Raimondo-led state pension overhaul that cut benefits for teachers and other state employees.
Over a generation, court decisions, a deep recession, uncertainty in Rhode Island’s economy and communities teetering on receivership have combined to weaken public employee unions. Union leaders have worked cooperatively with political leaders in some communities, particularly Providence, taking contract concessions.
At the Statehouse, public employee union leaders sought to restore bargaining rights to what they were before 2009, when a court decision in East Providence eliminated the longstanding practice of keeping the status quo during contract negotiations. That meant management could impose working conditions on teachers until they agreed to a new contract.
The House and Senate voted overwhelmingly for the union-supported measure, dubbed the “continuing contract” bill. All it really did was level the playing field so that management, in this case the school committee or state bureaucracy leadership, wouldn’t have the upper hand.
In labor relations, negotiation is better than confrontation or litigation. The continuing contract measure could be labelled the “keep talking” bill. It requires that both sides keep negotiating until a settlement is reached. And, while they’re talking, everyone has to live with terms of the old deal, usually forged three years earlier. This is the way the Assembly works, as Rhode Islanders discovered during the recent session. The House and Senate were at loggerheads over the state budget. Accusations were hurled and fingers pointed. Last year’s budget remained in effect; there was no government shutdown. In the end, Smith Hill leaders managed to forge a compromise. The state got a budget.
In defending her veto, Raimondo said she nixed the measure to protect taxpayers from being locked into contract rules they can’t afford.
The Rhode Island Island League of Cities and Towns, which represents mayors and town councils, lobbied against the bill. That’s no surprise; they’re the management side. They ran radio spots blasting the bill, asserting that it would mean “sweetheart deals that go on forever.’’ Who agreed to these so-called sweetheart deals? League members.
Unless you are out to bust the union, there is no need to give management such a big stick as the right to stall negotiations so they can impose a one-sided deal. Rhode Island teacher unions don’t have the right to strike and they don’t have binding arbitration. Connecticut teachers have binding arbitration and Massachusetts teachers can negotiate continuing contracts.
The only leverage Rode Island teachers have during stalled negotiations is to resort to “work to rule” tactics that mean teachers do the bare minimum required by contract. That only hurts students by cutting extra-curricular activities and deepening union-management resentment.
By contrast, the governor allowed a measure that eases the path for police officers and firefighters to get disability pensions that pay them two-thirds pay, tax free, for life. If ever there is a solution seeking a problem, this is it.
No one denies that firefighting and policing are dangerous occupations. But over the years there have been few examples of disability pensions being denied for legitimate job-related injuries. There have been too many instances where taxpayers may have been fleeced. A recent investigation by the Providence Journal’s Katherine Gregg showed that in Cranston, nine of 13 firefighters and 17 of 22 retired police officers enrolled in the state-run Municipal Employees Retirement System have accident tal disability pensions that give them the tax-free, two-thirds pay benefits for life. That should raise some eyebrows.
Unlike teachers and state workers, police and firefighters in Rhode Island have binding arbitration. Perhaps Raimondo should pay more attention to the need for fairness on teacher negotiations and less to the disability claims of first responders.
Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:45 and 8:45 and on All Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our “On Politics” blog at RIPR.org