In win for unions, Senate passes package of labor bills

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The Rhode Island Senate passed a package of labor bills Wednesday night aimed at protecting workers from having changes to their pay and benefits imposed upon them by cities and towns.

The leaders of those cities and towns have fought vehemently against continuing contracts, which they call “lifetime contracts,” arguing it hampers their ability to make cuts during an economic downturn, and could negatively affect taxpayers. 

The three continuing contract bills that passed the Senate would extend the union contracts for police, firefighters, teachers and municipal workers in the event their contracts expire while negotiations are ongoing.

Governor Gina Raimondo vetoed a similar bill for “evergreen contracts” back in 2017, writing in her veto message that it put taxpayers “at risk of being forever locked into contractual provisions they can no longer afford.”

But she appears more likely to sign the re-written version. Her press secretary, Josh Block, said in an email: “She has indicated that she is leaning toward signing it, as the proposal currently before the legislature is different than the 2017 bill and takes into account the recommendations outlined in her veto letter.”

The Senate floor debate had lawmakers pitting the needs of taxpayers against workers, leading Sen. Elizabeth Crowley, a former city clerk, to point out: “The municipal employees are taxpayers as well.”

Crowley urged her colleagues to protect workers’ wages and benefits, which would be protected after a contract expiration under the bill. 

“It’s not that I’m so pro-union,” Crowley said. “But I am pro-family. And I have to live and work and feed my family as much as the taxpayer does.”

“I consider myself pro-union,” said Sen. Donna Nesselbush, D-Pawtucket, who voted against the bill. She said supporting unions doesn’t mean she votes in favor of every union-backed bill.

“Evergreen means forever,” Nesselbush said. “Maybe I could go for two years, maybe I could go for five years, so that we could have predictions on how the economy looks. But for me, I wouldn’t do an evergreen contract at my law firm. And I just think that it ties the hands of our local municipal officials.”

The municipal officials agree. The Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns has led the charge against the legislation, warning giving in to “special interests” could reverse the tax relief provided by the phase-out of the car tax.

“When the next recession comes, Rhode Island will be the first in and the last out again,” said Brian Daniels, the executive director of the league. “The lifetime contracts legislation is just as harmful as the 2017 version and does not reflect the changes the Governor requested in her veto message.”

He said most cities and towns do agree to extend union contracts during negotiations, but need to have the option to make cuts or wage changes during an economic downturn. 

“By taking that tool away, it makes it very difficult for communities that are facing deficits or facing very difficult fiscal challenges to bring people to the table for concessions,” Daniels said.

The legislation does allow cities and towns to do layoffs after contracts expire, only extending the wages and benefits portions of the contracts.

Bob Walsh, the executive director of the National Education Association of Rhode Island, pointed out that extending contracts was the norm, though not the law, for many years before East Providence imposed a contract on teachers a decade ago.

“It upended the way collective bargaining is supposed to work,” Walsh said. “Management and labor sit down to the table as equals.”

The Senate also passed two bills that together give firefighters a 42 hour average work week, mandating overtime be paid after that. The bill is more generous than the federal standard for firefighters, which mandates overtime after 53 hours.

Almost every community in Rhode Island already does this, excluding North Kingstown, Tiverton and the Central Coventry Fire District. The bill was backed by fire unions, who argue it’s only fair to pay overtime after 42 hours, while some cities and towns said it infringes on local control and would cost taxpayers in those communities where 42 isn’t already the standard. 

The bills now head to the House, which already passed its own version of the bills. Once the bills reach the governor’s desk, Block said Raimondo would review the final versions and meet with mayors before deciding whether the sign the legislation.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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