Almost as certain as the mid-May pollen numbers climbing, entering the home stretch of the legislative year in Rhode Island means yet another debate over a series of bills that could potentially alter the field of collective bargaining agreements in the state forever.
Often dubbed as “evergreen contract” bills, these legislative efforts focus on indefinitely extending the life and provisions of existing contracts between unions and municipalities until a subsequent agreement is reached – no matter how much it costs in time or taxpayer dollars to get there.
There are three bills currently in the Rhode Island Senate for consideration – two of which would indefinitely extend the contractual provisions of police and fire union contracts, and another that would establish the stalemate-breaking practice of binding arbitration for municipal employees (which is already established for police, firefighter and teacher union contracts in Rhode Island).
The arguments on either side are well established. Union officials claim that binding arbitration and evergreen contracts prevent the need for a strike and simultaneously force the hands of municipalities to get down to brass tacks and fairly negotiate collective bargaining agreements before they expire. When that fails, binding arbitration provides a fair, third-party tiebreaker. They also argue that contracts rarely require binding arbitration or lengthy contract negotiations, and that even when an arbitrator is brought in, the winning and losing provisions are chosen purely based on who presents the best case.
Municipal leaders – primarily mayors and town administrators of larger budgets where as much as 70 percent of budgetary resources go towards active and retiree expenses for their union member public employees – on the other hand, say these measures stack the deck against cities and towns and deliver enormous negotiating leverage to the unions, who are in no hurry to negotiate themselves out of a better deal than they already have on the books, especially if those terms extend indefinitely by law. Further, arbitrators often have no connection to the communities they arbitrate, meaning they can make decisions that have tremendous financial impacts without truly appreciating the budgetary context.
It’s an issue deeply rooted in the ongoing struggle that is not unique to Rhode Island but does feel especially salient here due to our small size and many public, contentious labor negotiations throughout history. At a macroscopic, polarizing level, the stances on these bills are often seen as “pro-union” and “anti-union,” however they warrant a much more exploratory conversation and debate, as they do have potentially significant financial repercussions for many years to come.
The argument posed by those against the passage of such bills, like the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, is worth considering. Why should a collective bargaining group ever concede to a worse provision within a new contract – particularly involving salary or benefits – when a more lucrative provision will extend indefinitely? A union’s job is to advocate for the best deal for its members possible, after all, so why would they ever knowingly take a worse deal rather than roll the dice and hope that an outside arbitrator will eventually take their side? This approach is inconsiderate of taxpayers at best, as legal fees for arbitration attorneys can quickly escalate.
Our biggest question boils down to why these types of bills insist that existing contracts must extend indefinitely until a new contract is reached. Surely, a ticking clock is more incentive for parties to come to a mutual agreement than there being no timer at all. Temporarily extending contracts to provide time for good faith negotiating seems to be a fair tactic, but to do so indefinitely seems far more likely to result in a binding arbitration decision than a fairly negotiated contract.
If these bills are to succeed, we hope to see evidence through the legislative process showing that evergreen contracts provide the results union leadership claim they bring. For example, do places with evergreen contracts go to arbitration less or at least require less time in arbitration before a successor agreement is reached?
As the current labor situation stands in Rhode Island, we fail to see a compelling reason to add another instrument to the collective bargaining unit’s toolkit at this time – not without good reason backed up by hard statistics and facts.