RI House panel set to OK perpetual union contracts

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Municipal leaders are expressing alarm about a bill set to pass a House committee Wednesday that would keep municipal union contracts in force indefinitely if a new contract has not been reached.

The bill – sponsored by Warwick Democrat Camille Vella-Wilkinson – would amend state law on labor contracts for teachers and municipal workers by adding the words: “All contractual provisions contained in a collective bargaining agreement … shall continue until such time as a successor agreement has been reached between the parties.”

The House Labor Committee is scheduled to approve the bill Wednesday.

“I see this as being a matter of equity,” Vella-Wilkinson said at a March 16 hearing on the bill. “It’s important that both parties come to the table willing to negotiate, and without this bill – 5593 – or without binding arbitration, management has a decided advantage over labor, at least as it pertains to teachers and municipal employees.”

A bipartisan group of leaders from 14 Rhode Island communities – including Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, Pawtucket Mayor Don Grebien and Central Falls Mayor James Diossa – sent a letter this week to House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio pleading with them not to pass the bill.

“Automatic contract extension ultimately provides greater leverage for the employees at the expense of municipal management and taxpayers,” they wrote. “If a municipality is caught is an economic downturn, employees would have no incentive to renegotiate a contract if they think they will be asked for concessions.”

The Senate version of Vella-Wilkinson’s bill is sponsored by Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey, D-Warwick, but it has not yet had a hearing before the Senate Labor Committee.

The local leaders also said they remain concerned about proposals to expand eligibility for disability pensions. Those bills were briefly scheduled for a House Labor vote on Monday but quickly pulled from the calendar.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook