In the Mood for Binding Arbitration?

A top-of-the-fold article in today’s Providence Journal proclaims in its headline: “Teachers push for binding arbitration”:

The fight to secure binding arbitration for Rhode Island teachers is being revived at the State House after last year’s failed attempt by labor leaders in the last days of the legislative session.

A bill virtually identical to last year’s was submitted by Rep. John J. McCauley Jr., D-Providence, and was heard by the House Labor Committee Thursday evening. The committee also heard several other bills that could strengthen labor’s hand during contract negotiations, including one that would expand arbitration to municipal employees and another that would extend collective-bargaining agreements for public employees beyond the current three-year limit “until a successor agreement has been reached or an arbitration award rendered,” a practice called “contract continuance.”

However, having liveblogged the hearing, I can’t say I got the sense of much of a push.  Union officials came up and made a case they’ve made before.  Representatives from school districts and municipalities, as well as RISC’s Harry Staley, RI-CAN’s Maryellen Butke, and a representative from the Dept. of Education took to the podium to state that now is not the time and this is not the policy.  Overall, the entire evening had a desultory feel.  “You’ve heard it all before” might have been the subtitle of the hearing.

There were no teachers testifying to their fear of destitution.  No expert witnesses.  No drama beyond Rep. John Carnevale picking a fight with Warwick School Committee member Eugene Nadeau.  Anybody who has witnessed the unions “pushing” before, even on very small, very local matters, would have to conclude that this was not it.

That raises the obvious question:  What’s up?  Following the hearing, I heard from two very different brands of political insider that their sense is that there will be no binding arbitration and that, in fact, the mood of the legislature is to do nothing controversial and slink out of Providence early to go campaign, almost as if there’s a level of exhaustion after pension reform in the autumn.

But after pension reform, the unions didn’t sound exhausted.  Either I was more correct than I realized, that drama over the reform was mainly a show, or something else is in the works.  The idea that General Assembly members fear for their political lives doesn’t fit well with the blasé mood of last night’s hearing.  At the very least, one would expect the unions to be taking every opportunity to remind legislators of why they ought to be nervous; I didn’t hear the pension hit to union members mentioned once.