By JACOB MARROCCO
Two key members of the Johnston political community are split on the “evergreen” contracts bill that passed the full Rhode Island House of Representatives and Senate Labor Committee last week.
The legislation, which is likely heading to the full Senate this week, would continue the wages and benefits of contracts for municipal workers and teachers while negotiations are ongoing. All four members of the Johnston House delegation – Rep. Mario Mendez (D-Dist 13), Rep. Stephen Ucci (D-Dist. 42), Rep. Deborah A. Fellela (D-Dist. 43) and Rep. Gregory Constantino (D-Dist. 44) – voted in favor of the bill.
At press time, Ucci was the only representative to respond to a request for comment. He said his favorable vote was the result of wanting to “stop drastic behavior of activist mayors and councils.”
“The goal of this bill is really to stop the bad behavior or certain activists, mayors and councils and school committees that get in, let the contract run out and force folks who can’t strike into onerous terms,” he told the Sun Rise during a phone interview Wednesday morning.
Ucci spoke glowingly of Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena, who has spoken out passionately against the bill. He said Johnston has had “fantastic relations” with unions and has been able to avoid labor unrest during Polisena’s tenure. He said the same of Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, who has also been a vocal critic of the legislation.
Ucci said the bill is especially important to teachers, who by law cannot go on strike. He said there could be situations in which teachers face the option of either quitting or accepting difficult terms. That said, he added that he “cannot ever imagine” Polisena proposing to slash benefits or drastically reduce pay during negotiations.
“This is a thing that if everyone behaved like Mayor Polisena, we wouldn’t need laws like this,” Ucci said. “We have a responsibility to educate our kids … if the schools shut down and all the teachers quit, what do we do with our children? Hopefully, this will never even have to be utilized. It’s really an insurance policy to keep continuity of government.”
Polisena told the Sun Rise Tuesday that he was “very disappointed” in the Johnston delegation’s votes in favor of the legislation. He reiterated that he sent each lawmaker a letter urging them to oppose the bill, and vowed again to “put their name” on tax bills if the law results in an increase.
“I probably have had over 100 phone calls, plus another 40 or 50 people coming to pay their taxes that are very, very upset because the Johnston delegation voted for it,” the mayor said of what he calls the “lifetime” contract bill. “I assume that is perfect evidence for their opponents voting for something like that. I’ve had people call me and tell me they’re very upset, that they’re going to get more involved in the process.”
Polisena said he believes the bill will eventually result in a tax increase, using health care as an example. He said if health care costs increase 15 percent, and he asks unions to meet in the middle, they could refuse and remain on the old contract’s terms.
He said the town has a habit of continuing contracts during negotiations regardless, but he repeated a now-familiar remark that, if the bill passes and is signed into law, towns “might as well shut the lights off, give [unions] the keys, give them the checkbook and just walk out.”
“Of course, it drags it on, and now we have to pay for mediation, then arbitration, then of course if I don’t like the outcome, I’ll go to Superior Court,” Polisena said. “So it’s going to cost money and legal fees. So it’s just going to put us at a total disadvantage, as I said, for negotiations.”
Ucci said that he and the other Johnston representatives spoke a bit about the bill prior to voting, as he said is customary with most legislation. As for unions sticking with prior contract terms in perpetuity, as Polisena warned, Ucci said workers would have to forego raises during that time period.
He said that, for example, allowing a contract to remain in place for five to 10 years without a pay bump is “not an incentive to ride that out.”
“I don’t know that people never want to have a raise or change or improvement in their workplace or in their job,” Ucci said.
As for the mayor’s suggestion that he would attach representatives’ names to the tax bill, Ucci said that burden doesn’t fall on the House or Senate.
“It’s the mayor who raises your taxes, not the General Assembly,” he said.
Sens. Frank Lombardo III (D-Dist. 25, Johnston) and Stephen R. Archambault (D-Dist. 22, Smithfield, North Providence, Johnston) did not respond to repeated request for comment regarding how they intend to vote on the Senate companion bill.