Controversial contract bill now on Governor's desk
The fate of whether or not municipal employees and teachers will have their contracts extended indefinitely until they reach terms for a new contract now lies solely in the hands of Governor Gina Raimondo, as the bill that originated in the Rhode Island House of Representatives has successfully passed through the General Assembly.
The bill, introduced by Representative Camille Vella-Wilkinson (D-21 District, Warwick), seeks to ensure that the provisions of a prior contract are honored until a new contract is agreed upon by both sides, and is hailed by its proponents as an equity bill that would put workers on an even footing with management when contract negotiations begin, allowing each side to focus on a fair agreement without worrying about a previous contract expiring.
“The fact of the matter is this bill keeps everyone on the up and up,” Vella-Wilkinson said when the bill was first working through the House. “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.”
To get through the House, the bill picked up an amendment that would allow school administrators to lay off an equitable ratio of teachers if there is a significant decrease in student population, regardless of what the previous contract said about restricting layoffs. The Senate passed the bill without any further amendments.
“It's a compromise,” said Vella-Wilkinson of the amendment. “It saves the taxpayers money because of salaries and benefits they're not paying for.”
Those opposed to the bill include an allegiance of 16 mayors, town managers and town administrators who say that the bill will obliterate local control over contractual negotiations and give unions an imbalanced amount of power by creating “perpetual contracts.” They argue that unions will have little incentive to negotiate a new contract if they prefer the provisions of the old contract.
“In each contract negotiation session, we make decisions that are based on what is right for this community. I think that having that taken away from us and being required would take away local control,” said Warwick Mayor, Scott Avedisian during a conference of local mayors and local elected officials at Warwick City Hall last Thursday. “As somebody who has spent hours and hours and hours as a mediator in the contract dispute between the school committee and the teachers’ union, we know that we can reach an agreement.”
Cranston Mayor Allan Fung argued that maintaining provisions of an old contract despite constantly-changing financial conditions could be irreversibly harmful to cities and towns, especially if that contract could be extended indefinitely.
“This isn’t a Democrat or Republican issue; this is about doing the right thing for our local taxpayers,” Fung said. “Do not tie our hands. Do not handcuff us even further. Many of these contractual provisions really need to be discussed at the bargaining table as to what’s right, and has to change with time so we can be innovative and meet the needs of our students and our residents.”
Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena openly expressed his frustration with the bill in a promise to hold legislators accountable if Raimondo signs the bill and it results in a need to increase local taxes.
“I will put their names on the tax bill because it will be their fault that we have to raise the taxes because they voted on such legislation,” Polisena said. “I spent 12 years as a state senator and we’ve been very fair with the unions, we’ve worked well with the unions, but this truly, truly handicaps the mayors, the town administrators, the town managers and, of course, the town councils. This is bad, bad legislation.”
Despite the polarizing nature of the bill, Rhode Island’s biggest city is remaining silent on the issue. Victor Morente, press secretary for Providence Mayor, Jorge Elorza, said plainly that the city of Providence “does not have a position on this issue” at this time.
Likewise, Raimondo’s office is declining to comment on specific bills. “In the wake of the budget impasse, the Governor’s Office will have more to say about bills on her desk later this week,” read a statement Monday from Deputy Press Secretary Catherine Rolfe.
Brian Daniels, Executive Director for the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, said Monday he is gathering support to lobby a veto from Raimondo. Avedisian concurred that he was working in a collaborative effort to get the Governor to veto the bill and that the fate of the bill won’t be known for at least a couple of days.
(This article includes a report from Jacob Marrocco)