Rhode Islanders remember all too well the disastrous effects of financial crisis of 2008 and subsequent Great Recession.
The extraordinarily difficult fiscal climate of the late 2000s and early 2010s upended countless lives. Millions were put out of work. Many lost their homes or saw their life savings disappear as banks collapsed and the stock market cratered.
The situation – widely considered the worst economic calamity since the Great Depression – also required painful decisions and decisive action on the part of local and state governments. School budgets were slashed and vital investments were delayed. In many cases, including locally, concessions were sought from public unions. To their great credit, those unions often willingly came to the table.
While circumstances have undoubtedly improved, the effects of those dark days continue to be felt across our communities. But a proposal currently before the General Assembly effectively ignores this recent history – and the reality that, at some point in time, another recession will squeeze the public’s coffers.
The measure provides for so-called “evergreen” contracts, and it received the backing of the House Labor Committee on a 10-1 vote earlier this month despite impassioned pleas from municipal leaders across the Ocean State.
According to a summary, the bill “would provide that all terms and conditions in a school teachers’ collective bargaining agreement as well as a municipal employees’ collective bargaining agreement shall remain in effect while the parties are engaged in negotiations and/or certain dispute resolution processes and would provide that contractual provisions related to wages and benefits, excluding those that limit layoffs, would continue as agreed to, despite the lack of an agreement following mediation or arbitration until a successor agreement is reached.”
Supporters and labor leaders argue that the bill would help level the playing field for public unions and essentially restore the law to where it stood before a 2009 court decision involving an East Providence contract dispute.
But mayors and others, including Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns Executive Director Brian Daniels, say the “evergreen” contracts bill would hamstring municipalities by eliminating any incentive or timeframe for unions to come to the bargaining table.
Gov. Gina Raimondo vetoed a similar bill in 2017, although it appears she is more supportive of this year’s version.
Cranston Mayor Allan Fung and Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena have been among the outspoken critics of the measure in its current form and in past iterations.
“If that passes, we might as well just throw the keys in and just throw our arms up in the air. You really lose your negotiating power,” Polisena said during a recent interview. “I think it’s bad policy. It really … handcuffs communities, the cities and towns, the mayors, the town administrators, the town managers and the town councils.”
Daniels, in an op-ed, wrote: “Without an expiration date to compel parties to negotiate, municipal officials will not be able to make realistic and needed changes – particularly in a recession when employees are better off keeping what they already have.”
We appreciate and value the work of public employees. They help make our communities better places to live. We recognize that many unions and their members stepped up to the plate during the last recession to help our cities and towns stay afloat.
But we must keep an eye to the future. It appears to us that this “evergreen” legislation would impede the ability of municipal leaders to take needed action in dire circumstances and hinder efforts to preserve the fiscal health of their communities. Accordingly, we must oppose it.