RI House OKs perpetual contracts for municipal unions; bill moves to Senate

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The Rhode Island House of Representatives voted Thursday to keep municipal union contracts in force indefinitely if a new contract has not been reached, despite protests from mayors who said it will raise costs for taxpayers.

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 approved the bill on a nearly party-line vote of 58-12, with West Warwick Democrat Jared Nunes joining Republicans in opposing it. The House Labor Committee had approved a revised version of the bill just before the full House voted, excluding layoff clauses from the provisions that will remain in force.

House Majority Leader Joe Shekarchi, D-Warwick, argued the bill would create a more level playing field for labor unions in talks with municipalities, which he said would still have leverage due to the layoffs provision. House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan, R-West Warwick, noted that most local leaders strongly oppose the bill and argued it would increase Rhode Island’s already sky-high property taxes.

The Senate version of Vella-Wilkinson’s bill is sponsored by Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey, D-Warwick, and senators are scheduled to take it up Friday. Union initiatives generally have strong support among Senate Democrats.

It’s still unclear whether Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo will sign or vote the contracts bill if it reaches her desk.

“This one’s a tough one,” Raimondo told reporters Wednesday. “As a practical matter, this is the way things typically operate, which is to say most contract terms remain in effect until the new contract is signed. That’s the way it happens, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, in many towns this is a right that’s bargained for.”

“On the flip side, I’m hearing from a lot of mayors and cities and towns that this bill as it’s currently written will increase their costs,” she continued. “I’ve got to be the watchdog for the taxpayer. I cannot sign anything that I think is going to put a real increased financial burden on cities and towns. I’m also not going to sign anything that I think weakens collective bargaining.”

Earlier Thursday, the R.I. League of Cities and Towns organized a news conference featuring a group of mayors and other municipal leaders who called on lawmakers to reject the measure.

“If my senators or rep vote on this and I have to raise the taxes in the years to come or the next year or two, and it’s because of the evergreen clause, because of the contracts, I will put their name on the tax bill because it will be their fault,” declared Johnston Mayor Joe Polisena, a Democrat.

But Robert Walsh, executive director of the National Education Association Rhode Island teacher’s union, said most cities and towns already allow contracts to continue when agreements can’t be reached.

“If they’re talking about not wanting this legislation, to us that sends a message that they don’t want to honor labor peace in their communities,” Walsh told Eyewitness News. “And not having labor peace in communities is incredibly disruptive.”

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