What has become tagged as the “Warwick Teachers Contract bill” by legislators is one of the hot issues legislators face in the waning days of this session of the General Assembly. Introduced by Warwick Representative Camille Vella-Wilkinson, the measure would legislate that the terms of existing bargaining agreements remain in effect until a new agreement is reached.
The roots to the legislation stem from the current contract disagreement between the Warwick teachers and the School Committee that have been unable to reach an agreement after nearly two years of mediation, arbitration and court cases. Indeed, this has been a prolonged, costly and frustrating impasse that has been felt in the classroom and impaired the educational process.
From practically the start of talks, the union has argued the terms of the expired contract remain in place until a new one is reached. It makes sense. Teachers cannot strike and the last time they did so, 18 Warwick teachers ended up behind bars in 1992. Likewise it would be unfair if municipalities and the state could strip workers of all they have gained through successive bargaining sessions once a contract expires. Conceivably, using this premise, wages could be lowered and duties could be increased under the threat of dismissal. The employer would have free rein to do as they wish while the workers, disarmed of the ability to strike, would be vulnerable.
While this is an argument for the bill, legislators need look no further than the Warwick impasse to understand its failings. Warwick schools have operated on the understanding that terms of the existing contract remain in place for decades, supported by a Labor Relations Board finding that the committee committed an unfair labor practice when it failed to abide by the former agreement.
The current School Committee didn’t play by those rules when it moved ahead with secondary school consolidations, laying off more than the 20 teachers set in the terms of the former agreement. The committee also moved ahead with electronic grading, setting it as the standard, although the union argued it is a contractual issue and should be part of the contract. The union likewise argues a system of student weighting, where special needs students are considered as more than one in establishing class size, should remain intact until a new agreement is reached.
The committee challenged the Labor Relations Board ruling with the court ruling that, because of the declining student enrollment and the need to consolidate schools, it had the right to lay off greater numbers than set by the terms of the former agreement. In essence, it can be argued, the courts have already found strictly abiding by the terms of the former contract isn’t a sound practice.
As the union has repeatedly said, the best venue for reaching an agreement is the bargaining table with both sides talking. Mandating that the former contract terms remain in place serve as a disincentive to both sides. State legislators need to look no further than the labor history of Warwick schools where abiding by the terms of the prior contract has been the practice until challenged by the current School Committee to know this doesn’t help reach a consensus.