Move By Selectmen Is Not A Good One
Though well-intentioned, board's overture to unions a mistake
You have to give the Board of Selectmen credit for trying to aggressively and proactively address the tough financial year ahead. But the concept they came up with last Thursday night was ill-advised, ineffective, and just not a good idea.
Selectmen unanimously voted to send a letter to all unions they negotiate with asking them to accept a one-year extension of their current contracts, the idea being to freeze salaries and benefits thus preventing layoffs and severe cuts in services. They made this proposal in front of a seemingly surprised School Committee, and asked them to consider doing the same with the unions that come under their jurisdiction. The teachers union is by far the largest in town.
The problems with this proposal are many. First, it does not seem to be bargaining in good faith. This is starting negotiations with the collective bargaining units in public and in the press. You could not blame the unions if they got a bit upset that selectmen are apparently negotiating without them. This is the kind of proposal you make at the bargaining table, not in front of the press and the TV cameras.
Second, it is in essence waving the white flag and giving up any chance at negotiating concessions for next year. The budget needs to be lower, not the same. By agreeing to simply extend the contracts currently in place, selectmen pretty much admit they have no shot at getting the unions to give back in order to preserve jobs. That is questionable bargaining strategy to say the least.
Thirdly – it just won’t work. There is absolutely no incentive for the unions to agree to such a proposal. In fact it would be foolish of them to even consider such a thing, and here’s why.
If bargaining begins and the two sides do not reach agreement before the current contracts expire, the terms of the current agreement are automatically extended by law. A recent example of that was with the firefighters union. Their contract had been expired for over two years before a new agreement was recently approved. They continued to work under the terms of the last contract until a new one was signed.
By doing it that way instead of agreeing to a one-year extension, the unions maintain bargaining leverage. They also maintain the possibility of getting raises retroactively, as has happened often before. Why would they agree to extend their contracts by one year when that will happen anyway in the natural course of negotiations?
Selectmen are correct in that something needs to be done about collective bargaining in town – but this isn’t it. This actually accomplishes nothing except making a few headlines and possibly alienating the unions. It is a particularly bad idea on the school side due to the structure of the teachers contract. School committee members might have told selectmen that, had selectmen bothered to ask before announcing their plan.
This was a proposal was not given enough thought before it was pushed forward. Let’s hope it is quickly scrapped, and real bargaining commences with an eye towards maintaining services and saving jobs.
Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and a former selectman. He can be reached at email@example.com.