IT’S A STORY we’ve grown accustomed to in Boston. Another arbitrator has granted another outsized raise to another Boston public-safety union. In this instance, it was the Boston Police Detectives Benevolent Society, which recently won an arbitration award of 28.7 percent over six years. Because this union is relatively small, the contract itself is probably affordable, but if it takes effect, it could well set the new bargaining aspirations for other city unions.
“The detectives award will influence the next round of negotiations, and not only for police and fire, but also for the civilian unions,” notes Sam Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau.
Fortunately, there’s a way to stop this public-safety raise race: The Boston City Council should say no to funding this contract. That would send the two parties back to the bargaining table. And, perhaps, send a signal that the era of indulging excessive arbitrator awards is over.
If anyone needs any more evidence that binding arbitration — something that, among city unions, only public-safety employees have — is dysfunctional, this latest development should prove the point. During the last administration, the public-safety unions justified maneuvering contract disputes into arbitration by making the baseless claim that then-mayor Tom Menino was somehow antilabor. Then, in 2013, Marty Walsh, a former union leader, won the office with the overwhelming support of organized labor. With a labor-friendly mayor, voters were told, contracts would be settled at the bargaining table rather than by arbitrators, who take over when negotiations have hit an impasse.
That has happened to some degree. Most significantly, the mayor and the firefighters managed to settle their latest contract. But it didn’t happen with the detectives — and that’s instructive. There’s disagreement over just how much the Walsh administration offered, but it was certainly in the range of 25 percent over six years. However, the union thought, correctly, that it could do better in arbitration. Detectives union President Brian Black says he simply used the available process to win for his members the same deal the police patrolmen had obtained. It comes to more, percentage-wise, because his members have more seniority and other pay-boosting qualifications, such as college degrees, he says.
Given the system in place, it’s hard to fault a union chief for making that decision. Yet the dynamic here illustrates the problem that binding arbitration presents for the city. As Black notes, the package the detectives received was based on the expensive contract the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association got in 2013, which gave them a 25.4 percent raise over six years. And why were the raises in that contract so generous? Because it was also settled by an arbitrator, who decided that the patrolmen deserved such a deal based on what the firefighters were getting. (Each union finds a way to calculate pay parity that shows its members at a disadvantage.)
As that pattern of interrelated awards shows, the arbitration process itself is in serious need of reform. If unions believe they can likely get a better deal through arbitration than through bargaining, it’s only natural that they will hold out for arbitration. And they usually do get such a deal. One likely reason why is that it’s hard for an arbitrator who falls out of favor with the public-safety unions to get rehired for subsequent disputes. Thus you have mutually reinforcing motivations: Arbitrators have an incentive to deliver generous awards, and public-safety unions have a reason to hold out for arbitration.
Reforming the process is a larger, longer-term, issue, however. The immediate way to address this particular arbitrator’s decision is for city councilors to reject it.
For that to happen, however, Mayor Walsh will have to speak up. So far he’s been quiet. Now, there is a difficulty to finesse here: Under the law, mayors are supposed to submit an arbitrator’s award to the council for funding and to be publicly supportive.
But that restriction on mayoral speech would never survive a court challenge. Certainly former mayor Menino and his team made it abundantly clear when they considered arbitration awards excessive and unaffordable. Further, all the Walsh administration needs to do is explain the effect that this award will have on other negotiations with other unions and what the consequences would be for other city departments.
“The city is only able to pay for these higher pubic-safety contracts by cutting back on other city services,” notes Tyler. One measure of that: Net out public-safety employees and the school department, and the number of city employees has declined over the past decade or so.
But if the pattern is to change, the City Council need to display something in as short supply as tax dollars: backbone. Although councilors will sometimes pretend otherwise, the council has wide latitude in determining whether to fund this package. By soundly rejecting this contract, the City Council can send a clear message: Arbitration is no longer an easy route to an excessive raise; the city’s public-safety unions need to bargain in good faith and come to agreement at the table.