PROVIDENCE â€“ In California, a sure harbinger of spring is the return of swallows to Capistrano. In Rhode Island it is unions and school and municipal officials returning to the House Labor Committee to fight about binding arbitration.
In a hearing that included bills not only on binding arbitration for police, firefighters and school teachers, but also on continuing the provisions of contracts until successor agreements are approved, speakers on both sides acknowledged that the same bills have been discussed for years and the pros, the cons and the committee members all knew what each other was going to say because theyâ€™d heard it all before.
Speaking on a bill that would keep the provisions of firefighters contract in effect until a new contract or an arbitration award has been rendered, Paul Valletta of the RI State Association of Firefighters told the panel, â€śThis is a piece of legislation that the committee sees every year, it gets its hearing in committee and it never hits the floor. Weâ€™re asking the committee this year to send it to the floor.â€ť
Painting the matter as â€śstrictly a safety issue,â€ť Valletta told the committee â€śour contracts are our only safety net.â€ť If the contract is allowed to expire and the department chief or mayor does not agree that the matter is a safety issue, â€śwe have to operate in an unsafe manner.â€ť
He noted that, in North Providence, when a contract expired, Mayor Charles Lombardi reduced minimum manning requirements and in North Kingstown, the town imposed 24-hour shifts for firefighters. â€śThis is a dangerous thing that is happening in Rhode Island, that contracts are being allowed to expire, and mayors are taking it upon themselves to cut the fire service.
â€śIf you are a mayor, and you think that once a contract expires, you donâ€™t have to follow it anymore, youâ€™re not going to negotiate in good faith. If I were a mayor, I wouldnâ€™t negotiate in good faith. Why would you?â€ť
Valletta added that making unilateral changes would likely not save cities and towns money in the long term, because an arbitrator would eventually reject them, requiring the town to give back pay for any salary or benefits union members do not receive.
Anthony Capezza of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers offered similar arguments, saying mayors â€śare taking the position that, once your contract expires, they can make unilateral changes.â€ť
Several union officials, such as James Cenerini of Council 94, AFSCME and Patrick Crowley of the National Education Association of Rhode Island, rejected the notion that arbitration is an â€śautomatic winâ€ť for the unions. That has not proved true in recent years, they said, and particularly in these harsh economic times it would be foolish for unions to put their rights and benefits in the hands of an arbitrator who could take them away.
Avoiding arbitration, Crowley said, â€śis an incentive for us to settle as soon as possible to preserve what we have.â€ť
That caused Tim Duffy, executive director of the RI Association of School Committees, to ask why all the union officials had signed up to speak in favor of the binding arbitration bills.
J.R. Pagliarini, senior executive advisor to Providence Mayor Angel Tavares, spoke passionately against the union bills.
He said the measures â€śwould seriously hinder the cityâ€™s ability to contain costs, reduce its structural deficits and prevent its collapse.â€ť He added that the firefighters and school teachers arbitration bills, would â€śeliminate the incentive for municipal unions to participate in collective bargaining with a city in financial crisis if the terms of the expired contract are favorable to the union. This would have a devastating effect on the taxpayers of Providence and other distressed communities.
The arbitration bills, Pagliarini said, would â€śyield decision-making authority over public funds to individual, unelected and unaccountable arbitrators.â€ť
Samuel Koldyk of the Ocean State Tea Party in Action warned that continuing contracts would be â€śa major hurdle for cities and towns looking to live within their means. There is a very real possibility that newer contracts wonâ€™t be as lucrative as previous contracts because we are in a recession right now. Perpetual contracts could force municipalities to keep using older and more expensive contracts.â€ť
Daniel Beardsley, executive director of the RI League of Cities and Towns, traced the unionsâ€™ desire for requiring contracts to continue until a succeeding agreement to former Central Falls Mayor Lee Matthews, who after a dispute with the firefighters union unilaterally changed two or three minor contract provisions, such as clothing allowance, once the unionâ€™s contract had expired. He acknowledged that Matthews â€śended up with egg on his faceâ€ť when an arbitrator rejected his actions.
At one point, Valletta opened the door to the idea of extending only the portions of contracts relating to safety issues, but Beardsley answered, â€śI donâ€™t know too many provisions of collective bargaining agreements that donâ€™t relate to safety.