June 13, 2009

Passing the Eternal Contract

Justin Katz

The email is already rapidly permeating the Rhode Island wing of cyberspace announcing Senate passage of S0713 (PDF), which adds the following language to teacher-related labor law:

In the event that a successor collective bargaining agreement has not been agreed to by the parties, then the existing contract shall continue in effect until such time as an agreement has been reached between the parties.

As today's RISC-Y Business newsletter suggests, this legislation "removes any incentive for unions to negotiate, and comes close to transferring the largest element of town budgets from town councils to the unions." If school committees ever get it in their heads to begin scaling back pay and benefits, unions could simply stall in perpetuity.

RISC also offers the interesting note that this bill was originally scheduled for debate on the day that the legislators ran away from the Gaspee Tea Party. According to the Senate journal for the next session (PDF), when we voters weren't literally at the gates, the votes went as follows:

YEAS- 32: The Honorable President Paiva Weed and Senators Algiere, Bates, Blais, Ciccone, Connors, Cote, Crowley, DaPonte, Devall, DiPalma, Doyle, Felag, Gallo, Goodwin, Jabour, Lenihan, Levesque, Lynch, Maselli, McBurney, McCaffrey, Metts, Miller, O'Neill, Perry, Raptakis, Ruggerio, Sheehan, Sosnowski, Tassoni, Walaska.

NAYS- 2: Senators Maher, Pinga

ABSTAINED- 1: Senator Picard

The three names in bold are Republicans who voted for this desperate attempt to dig a deeper grave in which to bury Rhode Island alive, and if it becomes law, not a single one of them should ever receive the support of Republican voters again.

House bill 5142 (PDF) would have the same effect, although it would create binding arbitration on all issues (right now it is not binding on financial matters), with the arbitration panel resolving "each individual disputed issue by accepting the last best offer thereon of either of the parties." So, for instance, if a school committee agrees to certain requests of the union as part of negotiations toward higher healthcare co-shares, but the union won't budge on the benefit number, the arbitration panel could pick the union's "last best offer" without anything previously set aside being taken up again. The new contract would, as a matter of law, be retroactive to the previous contract's expiration, and it's worth noting that, although the bill makes financial arbitration binding, it does not remove language forbidding appeal.

H5142 is currently being "held for further study" in the House Labor Committee. I'm not very familiar with the rules for the speed at which it could happen, but 5142 could be resurrected at any time.

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The captain and crew of the RItanic are running around opening up all of the portholes.

Amazing, but not surprising.

The water is rushing in ever faster; get out of RI if you can.

And as for those "Republicans" - is it any wonder why Rhode Islanders aren't excited by the RIGOP or its candidates?

Posted by: Tom W at June 13, 2009 9:28 AM

It is good to see RISC finally getting it right. They endorsed Algiere. But since he is selling us down the river maybe they will end that support. But since they are the king NIMBY's in the state, that should not surprise us. As a Charlestown resident it was disapointing to see them fight the westerly school bond and not fight the chariho bond just because it might have caused a tax increase for some of their donors. Maybe now that they call themselves the "statewide" coalition they wont be so NIMBY.

Posted by: CP at June 13, 2009 9:31 AM

This seems about right if this become law...

"Hudson: That's it man, game over man, game over! What the **** are we gonna do now? What are we gonna do?

Burke: Maybe we could build a fire, sing a couple of songs, huh? Why don't we try that?"

-Aliens (1986)

With the 3 RINOs voting for this, the reasons for remaining part of this part become less everyday...

Posted by: tcc3 at June 13, 2009 1:54 PM

Sen. Walaska is a joke. In the Thursday edition of the Warwick Beacon he claims to be upset over the tax increase in Warwick but he then turns around and votes for this ridiculous bill. School Committee's have no leverage in negotiations now. Walaska sticks it to the taxpayers once again.

Posted by: John at June 13, 2009 3:20 PM

I always get nervous when RISC pipes up about an issue. I'm from Hopkinton and after RISC fought hard against a Westerly School bond, I thought taxpayers had a group in our corner. Come to find out, RISC is about RISC members and what is best for them, not the community. When it came time to take a position on Chariho's wasteful bond, RISC sat on their hands.

In Westerly the RISC members are heavily concentrated and the school bond means more taxes for them. In Chariho most of the RISC member are from Charlestown, and Charlestown has a very advantageous tax scheme when it comes to education. Charlestown homeowners pay 1/3 of what homeowners pay in Hopkinton and Richmond. So passage of a Chariho bond locked in their tax situation for another 20 years.

RISC is about RISC members. I take anything coming from the group with a grain of salt. I don't trust them a whit.

Posted by: Curious Resident at June 13, 2009 8:08 PM

What am I missing here? Isn't criticizing this a bit short-sighted? What about during the good years? Couldn't the situation be reversed where the school committee could then stall and not have to give raises and keep everyone at the previous contract's salaries?

Of course during those years, the Assembly would probably pass a new bill that overrides this one, but still, it could work long term.

Posted by: Patrick at June 13, 2009 9:15 PM

I am not sure what the net effect of this bill would be. I think you would need to see how it would apply to real world scenarios, rather than conjecture on worst case. Perhaps the best current example we have would be the East Providence contract. If this had been in force at the beginning of contract negotiations, what would be the net effect to costs to taxpayers -long term and short term - including attorney fees? Attorney fees become less, when abiguity of outcome is removed. I think EP is up to around $500K now.

Posted by: Robert Balliot at June 14, 2009 6:52 AM

This is a terrible bill. It makes no sense whatsoever. It would mean contracts have no real beginning or end. I can see this going to court. Hopefully, although I won't count on it, the house bill is under study on this subject. Hopefully it dies as it deserves to.

If this bill was last year, and became law, E Prov would be in bankruptcy for sure. Of course the public unions don't give a hoot about the taxpayers of EP who make around $40,000/year. Just shut up and pay.

Our two senators, who are directly in the front pockets of the unions, never mind the back pockets, will have competition next election cycle. Any reps who see fit to go along with this extortion plan will also have targets on their back next election cycle also.

Posted by: kathy at June 14, 2009 3:26 PM

Here's an example of one dangerour element to the bill. Hopkinton recently had a budget vote, and our town charter has a very similar provision where a contract carries over if there is no agreement with a union. So what was the threat when it came time for voters to approve or reject a budget? We were told we were better off approving the budget because reverting to the old budget would cost us even more.

Consider this scenario when taxpayers finally reach the point where they're no longer willing to tolerate excessive wages and benefits, and they actually elect a School Committee with fiscally sane members who refuse to capitulate. Everything is in place, yet taxpayers are still on the hook because the union simply says no and they keep all the goodies they've stolen from the taxpayers for years. This bill is horrible. I'm sure it will pass.

Posted by: Curious Resident at June 14, 2009 4:34 PM

I don't have copies of the contracts that I worked with, but I seem to recall the same provision for continuity with similar wording in each.

Compensation is important but only a small part of contract language that includes - job descriptions, drug policies, vacation, seniority, breaks, grievance procedures, termination procedures and a multitude of other parameters that must be defined and followed.

I think the intent of the language was to provide continuity of methods, duties and procedures in the workplace. When contract negotiations went beyond the duration of the contract, there were no pay increases - basically the workplace remained in stasis. Pay increases negotiated and increases to co-pays were retroactive upon successful completion of negotiations.

There is certainly bilateral benefit to contract continuity. However, I am not convinced that binding arbitration is equally beneficial to employer and employees.

Posted by: Robert Balliot at June 14, 2009 5:35 PM
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