After more than two years of volatile contract negotiations, the Warwick Teachers’ Union and the Warwick School Committee finally reached terms acceptable enough for a tentative agreement on a new contract.
The agreement took place at Warwick City Hall after more than five hours of mediation, officiated by state-appointed mediator, attorney Vincent Ragosta, and Mayor Scott Avedisian. The negotiations had begun on the evening of Wednesday, Oct. 18 and went until about 12:30 a.m. the early morning of Thursday, Oct. 19.
“We learn from our mistakes and we also learn from victories,” said Ragosta at a press conference held at his office in Providence on Thursday afternoon. “At the end of the day this was about preserving a relationship – a professional relationship. These teachers are good teachers and I have to say, the union leadership during mediation brought up a number of very compelling points. The challenge that the mayor and I faced was addressing those points in a mutually satisfactory contractual provision...we used every technique of persuasion to move the parties and be objective, and I think we achieved it last night.”
Ragosta could not share specific details of what issues were finally brought to the middle for agreement, or what the final provisions of those issues will look like in the new deal. The contract needs to be officially drawn up and agreed to by both sides, which Avedisian said they were hopeful should be happening in the next week or two.
One major technique of persuasion that Ragosta was referring to included leveraging the soon-to-be released leanings of independent arbitrator Michael Ryan – whose pending arbitration award would impose binding contractual language and nonbinding financial terms for a new deal.
Ragosta said that both sides came to the table with a knowledge of what those leanings would look like, so they knew what was potentially at stake if they didn’t reach an agreement soon – the findings are still expected to be released any day now – and both Ragosta and the Mayor were pleased that the two sides were able to come to new terms without those terms being imposed by an outside party.
“I think it was very important that they reached agreement themselves. It's one thing to have something implemented from the outside, it was most important that they reached an agreement together,” said Avedisian. “Because in the end, the contract that you make on your own is far better than a contract that is imposed,” said Ragosta.
Avedisian, who was acting as a facilitator for the two sides to continue negotiations on an “as-wanted” basis, said that the length of the mediation process was partially due to longstanding issues between the two sides.
“It may have taken 25 mediation sessions. but I like to think about it. At least now that we've reached a tentative agreement, those 25 sessions gave everybody an ability to say everything that they needed to say – to one another and to us,” he said at the press conference. “I feel as though old issues got resolved, people got things off their chest, we gave people an ability to talk about the future and, sometimes, those types of discussion can be just as fruitful and productive as a tentative agreement.”
Although the contract is now pending and all but finalized, it is fair to assume that at least some of the animosity between the two negotiating sides will remain, at least for the immediate future – especially considering a parent-led protest staged in front of City Hall just prior to the final mediation session starting.
Still, Avedisian was optimistic about the city’s ability to heal and repair following the tentative agreement.
“We have three years to keep everyone together and moving forward. You have your setbacks but I think the parties involved here showed that we can all be together,” he said. “There were more times yesterday that we were around the same table than we were apart, and I think that's a good omen for the future.”
A couple loose ends from the tumultuous, lengthy negotiations remain. One is the temporary restraining order which remains in effect until Friday, which would potentially impose strict penalties on teachers who organize any “sick outs” to close schools. However with a new agreement, Ragosta said this should hopefully be a non-issue.
“The parties, in view of the settlement, are now optimistic that further litigation and further injunctive relief may not be necessary,” he said. “However that injunctive relief remains in full force and effect.”
The other, more complicated and unresolved matter relates to the many grievances filed by Warwick teachers in the time spent between contracts – for what they maintain are violations of the previous contract, and the school administrations maintain are invalid because the terms of that contract had expired.
Ragosta explained that, essentially, these grievances would now have to be assessed on a case-by-case basis going forward.
“That is something that is a bit complicated in that there are a number of grievances that are related to the issues that have been resolved in the collective bargaining agreement that will culminate from this mediation, however there are other grievances which are, shall I say, they're standalone grievances. They impact the individual rights of teachers. Those grievances may have to go forward,” he said.
“But the good news is, in a sign of good faith, the parties have agreed to meet and confer and hopefully resolve those grievances without full-scale arbitration,” Ragosta continued. “They are going to try to do that as quickly as possible.”
There were undoubtedly sighs of relief all over the city when news broke that an agreement had been tentatively reached. The negotiations had begun to boil over in recent months, with pickets sprouting up around the city and five schools closing as a result of teacher-led efforts to call out of school sick.
Despite these passionate outbursts of protest that underscored long-held and deeply-felt frustrations by those in the education community, Ragosta and Avedisian said that both sides were nothing but cordial and professional while at the negotiation table. The parties started off in separate rooms and were brought together for the final agreement.
Avedisian floated the idea to pass a law that would require successor agreements to be reached six months prior to their expiration date – so that another contract dispute like this one could not happen again.
“The worst part is when a situation like this drags on,” he said. “And you can see it's a very emotional process for people. If we can prevent that from happening again in the future it would be to everyone's benefit.”