By Elizabeth F. McNamara
The Town of East Greenwich has joined 15 other Rhode Island cities and towns in a Superior Court lawsuit against the General Assembly and Gov. Gina Raimondo over legislation signed into law in June that allows public sector labor union contracts to stay in effect through the bargaining process. The Town Council, all Democrats, voted 5-0 to join the lawsuit.
The law is seen as a benefit for teachers unions in the state which, unlike police and firefighter unions, do not have binding arbitration at their disposal. (Binding arbitration allows for a third party to make a decision during a negotiation impasse, something most municipalities see as an intrusion.)
Rep. Justine Caldwell (Dist. 30) and Sen. Bridget Valverde (Dist. 35), both Democrats, voted to approve the “contract continuation” law last spring and they stood by their votes during recent interviews.
“It’s a standard fair labor practice that had been followed for decades before what happened in East Providence,” said Valverde. She was referring to a 2009 decision by the East Providence School Committee, after the contract with its teachers had expired, to cut teachers’ pay and impose health insurance co-pays unilaterally, citing the district’s inability to pay.
“The law we passed simply codifies fair labor practices that happen routinely in our state into law,” said Rep. Caldwell. “It’s how good labor relations look and we should want it to stay that way.”
The new law does in fact codify what the East Greenwich School District has done for decades: allow the lapsed contract to remain in place while negotiations continue. As it happens, the 2016-19 contract between the school district and the teachers union expired in August but conditions of the contract have been maintained during continued negotiations.
School Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Mark declined to comment on the state of negotiations or whether the new law was affecting them, saying only that the School Committee had not yet ratified a new contract.
As for the Town Council’s decision to join the lawsuit and whether or not the School Committee had any opinion, Mark said, “We’ve not taken a position on it.”
Town Council President Mark Schwager said the suit is about protecting the town’s ability to rule itself, citing the Home Rule for Cities and Towns.
“For me, this legislation took away that ability for us to handle local affairs. I felt it was our duty to maintain our ability to make decisions affecting our local taxpayers,” he said.
Town Manager Andrew Nota agreed that it comes down to local control.
“We are protecting our rights to preserve that relationship to bargain with our employees, across the table from one another and felt that the state legislature has overreached with this legislation in violation of the contracts clause and Home Rule provision of the state constitution,” he wrote in an email.
“The state should have no role in local negotiations,” he continued, adding that the General Assembly should focus its energy on “the major challenges facing our state.”
Noting that the town negotiated 0 percent salary increases for fiscal year 2019-20 across the four municipal unions, Nota suggested the outcome of the School Committee–teachers union negotiations would tell whether or not the new law proved “a hindrance” to reaching an agreement.
The town will pay into the cost of bringing the lawsuit. Schwager said the suit is more than about any ruling that will come of it.
“The suit is a legal avenue but it’s also a statement about wanting to maintain our local authority,” he said.
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