April 8, 2005

Rhode Island Politics & Taxation, Part XIV

This posting continues a periodic series on Rhode Island politics and taxation, building on thirteen previous postings (I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII, XIII).

More specifically, this posting is about the teachers' union contract dispute in East Greenwich, a topic previously discussed in posting IV. That earlier posting documented a series of false statements propagated publicly in recent months by the National Education Association Rhode Island (NEARI). Their latest public statements, which this posting presents, continue that pattern of deceptive and misleading statements. I would encourage you to read this previous posting as it provides a context for understanding the latest news.

The NEARI issued a press release yesterday with the headline of "State Mediator Resigns, East Greenwich Education Association Calls upon State To Assign New Mediator and Subpoena School Committee" and said the following:

State Mediator Gerard Cobleigh resigned his position as mediator for the unsettled East Greenwich teachers’ contract after a brief session on Wednesday, April 6, 2005. On Sunday, April 3, Cobleigh offered a "mediator’s proposal" to jump start talks after the East Greenwich School Committee repeatedly failed to respond to the last offer from the teachers’ union. At a session scheduled on Wednesday, April 6, 2005, only two school committee members attended, and they ignored the mediator’s proposal, leading to his resignation.

EGEA President Roger Ferland stated, "I don’t blame Mr. Cobleigh for resigning – the school committee is dysfunctional. We will be requesting that a new mediator be assigned immediately and that the new mediator subpoena the entire school committee to meet as frequently as necessary to get a contract. If they don’t care enough about the kids to do that, they too should resign their positions."

"Enough is enough" said NEARI President Larry Purtill, in response to the situation. "The continuing vilification of teachers must stop now. The school committee should tell the truth to the people of East Greenwich – our teachers help make East Greenwich one of the best school systems in the state, and it is a shame that the East Greenwich School Committee is ruining the district’s reputation. Why would anyone buy a house in this town while this matter remains unsettled?"

NEARI Executive Director Bob Walsh stated, "The National Education Association Rhode Island stands ready to commit all our resources to help the East Greenwich teachers achieve a fair contract. Everyone hoped they could work it out themselves – now the state organization will become involved, and if we need help from our 2.8 million member national organization, we will not hesitate to request it."

Beneath all of the name-calling and threats in this press release are facts about what has really been going on. And those facts tell a completely different story than the one the NEARI wants you to believe.

The facts begin to become more clear in this ProJo article published today on the dispute. The article includes these excerpts:

School Committee members yesterday protested the union's statement, saying that they have been vigilant in attending bargaining sessions.

"There hasn't been any time when they [union officials] wanted to meet when we've refused," said Marilyn J. Friedemann. "I'm willing to meet with any one of them."

Steven W. Gregson, who heads the board's three-member negotiating team, said yesterday that, at this point, the number of committee members who attend the bargaining sessions is irrelevant.

"The number of people doesn't matter," Gregson said. "The School Committee's position has been fixed from the very beginning. The problem is they don't agree with our position."

The sides seem to have come to a deadlock on one major issue, committee members say: health care.

Since last year, committee members have been calling on the teachers -- who receive their health insurance for free -- to contribute 10 percent of the cost of the premiums.

At Wednesday's talks, Gregson said, the committee eased that demand: calling for a 6 percent contribution in the first year of a new contract, 8 percent in the second year and 10 percent in the third.

Robert A. Walsh Jr., the executive director of the union's parent organization, National Education Association Rhode Island, said that the union did not recognize the offer as an official proposal because it wasn't put in writing.

"When you make a proposal, you put it in writing," Walsh said, later adding that the committee has "got to treat this as a professional negotiation."

"They should know better," he said.

But according to Cobleigh, the union objected primarily to the offer's content, not its format.

"Whether or not it is in writing would not have changed their response to it," he said.

Walsh conceded the point.

"I don't think [Cobleigh] is innacurate in saying that had they put their ideas in writing, they probably wouldn't have been acceptable," he said...

Cobleigh's resignation caps a flurry of testy exchanges between Cobleigh, the union and the School Committee...

On Thursday, during a mediated bargaining session at the State Department of Labor and Training headquarters, in Cranston, the union refused to meet with the School Committee and representatives of United Healthcare -- who were invited to the session by committee members -- to discuss health insurance options offered by the company.

Walsh later said that the insurance company is not a party to the negotiations and that the union should have been given advance notice that United Healthcare officials would be there...

The facts become even clearer when you read Marc's posting on today's Steve Laffey radio show interview with members of the School Committee and this letter from School Committee member Steve Gregson. There is some additional information in this newspaper article.

So where do things currently stand and what has changed in recent months? The most recent offer by the East Greenwich School Committee was for:

Salary increases: 3.5%, 3.6%, and 3.7% job step salary increases over the three year contract (which translate into 9-13% annual salary increases for 9 of the 10 job steps);

Health insurance premium co-payments: 6%, 8%, and 10% over the three year contract;

Health insurance buyback: Teachers not using health insurance provided by the district currently receive a $6,800/year cash bonus. The new offer reduced that to $6,000, $5,500 and $5,000 over the life of the three year contract.

The union walked out and refused to even discuss this proposal with the School Committee, just several days after they refused to meet with the United Health people when the School Committee was looking for ways to provide the same benefits to teachers but at a lower cost than BlueCross/BlueShield. Now, ask yourself who is obstructing a settlement on a new East Greenwich contract?

Personally, I think the latest financial terms offered by the School Committee are too generous, that the School Committee has been negotiating against itself due to the NEARI's intransigence. For example, the School Committee's offers have changed in the following ways: (i) 3.5% job step salary increases for all three years have increased to 3.5%/3.6%/3.7% increases over three years; (ii) a 20% co-payment for all three years has decreased to 10% and now 6%, 8% and 10% over three years; and, (iii) the buyback cash payment was increased from $4,500 for all three years to a range of $5,000-6,000 over three years. I hope they will now return to 3.5% annual job step salary increases, a flat 10% co-payment and a $4,500 buyback payment. Here is some added context: East Greenwich town employees hired since 1996 have a 20% co-pay and town employees working under their NEA union contract receive only a $1,000 cash buyback. Why should East Greenwich teachers be treated so differently?

But, at the same time, here is what is so telling and what the NEARI doesn't want you to know: Those trends in proposed contract terms show how the School Committee has moved their position quite substantially over the months. And, all the NEARI has done in response is throw public fits, make threats, refuse to negotiate, and then publicly accuse the School Committee of inaction. (The problem with ridiculous demands by the teachers' unions is not limited to East Greenwich, as we all heard this week when the Warwick teachers' union put an outrageous new demand for lifetime health insurance on the table.) Who do these unions think is going to pay for all these rich benefits?

The NEARI's recent behavior shows how they are attempting to create a firestorm of controversy with the goal of intimidating the community of East Greenwich. As another example, read this silly teacher's letter; its logic is so deficient that it doesn't even warrant a response. The union has made no progress so far in creating such a firestorm and they won't in the future. But they are savvy enough to know that their attempts to legally extort the residents of East Greenwich would be helped if they could change the debate from a negotiation about contract terms into a two-way name-calling effort.

It is a tribute to the current School Committee of East Greenwich that they, unlike the NEARI, are refusing to engage in similar name-calling. They aren't doing that because they understand what is at stake here: This is a financial issue and, only, a financial issue. The taxpayers of East Greenwich simply cannot afford the outrageous contract terms demanded by the NEARI. The School Committee understands that if they were to cave into the union's demands, town residents would continue to see limited-to-no money for innovative academic programs and facility maintenance. Unfortunately, past union contract demands have made this an ongoing problem, a statewide problem documented by third-party sources.

The bottom line is quite easy to understand. Taxpayers don't get 9-13% annual salary increases but teachers in 9 of the 10 job steps receive such increases - and have for each of the last six years. Most taxpayers don't have health insurance premium co-payments below 20% but teachers currently have a zero co-payment and their union won't even discuss a 6%/8%/10% proposal. Taxpayers don't get annual cash bonuses for not using their company's health insurance plan but teachers get $6,800 and their union won't even discuss a decrease to $6,000. Furthermore, by choosing "work-to-rule" while still demanding retroactive pay back to last September, the NEARI has shown their willingness to put our children at risk in order to hold residents hostage for compensation terms far superior to what most of us receive. That confirms whose self-interest they are singularly focused on and how far they will go to get what they want. The NEARI's behavior is both unjust and indefensible.

Salary increases and benefits just like the rest of us, the working families and retirees whose hard-earned monies pay for all school district salaries and benefits. That is all the residents of East Greenwich are asking for in the new contract.

Thanks to the East Greenwich School Committee for standing tall on behalf of all of us. They deserve our strong and public support.


All five members of the East Greenwich Town Council have signed a letter to the editor in support of the School Committee. It was published in the April 14 editions of the two local newspapers.

The same newspapers published an editorial of mine that was a synopsys of this posting.

Here are some general news articles from the local newspapers (here, here, here, here, here) about these issues and related issues.

The April 14 edition of the East Greenwich Pendulum has a web-based poll which asks the question: "Do you favor the side of the East Greenwich Teachers' Union or the East Greenwich School Committee in the current contract negotiations stalemate between the two sides?" I believe this kind of poll is troublesome and that led me to write these words to the newspaper's editor:

Several residents have called me this morning expressing angst about a poll...As I understand it, the poll asks which side residents are on regarding the union contract but does not present what terms each side has put forth. I can articulate the School Committee position. I cannot articulate the union position. Can you? I cannot do it because I don't think they have one other than saying no and refusing to negotiate in good faith. If no one can articulate their position, how can the poll results be valid?

In addition, good polls involve scientific samples of people in a way that matches the demographics of the target audience. Web-based polls have no such disciplined structure and that means there is no scientific basis for the results. Either the union or the School Committee proponents could manipulate the polling process and that would do damage to the quality of the public debate. Since the union is losing the public debate right now, they have a huge incentive to play games here.

We both know poll results are only as good as the questions they ask. I am deeply concerned that this poll will be manipulated in a way that further polarizes the community and inhibits us from getting to the best possible outcome.