The Surprising Callousness of the General Assembly’s Union Moves


I’ll admit that I’m surprised by this, as Katherine Gregg reports it in the Providence Journal:

Public-employee unions scored one victory after another Wednesday night when the Senate Labor Committee — including a senator who doubles as vice president of the National Education Association of Rhode Island — approved a swath of bills vehemently opposed by cities and towns to indefinitely lock in expired labor contracts and mandate a 42-hour overtime threshold for firefighters.

In little more than an hour, the committee chaired by Sen. Frank Ciccone — a paid consultant to an arm of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, which represents state and municipal employees — held hearings and then voted the same night on five top-priority bills for organized labor.

In short: the bills now headed to the full Senate for likely votes next week would indefinitely extend expired police, firefighter, municipal employee and teacher contracts and eliminate an exemption in the state’s overtime law and instead mandate time-and-a-half pay for firefighters after an average 42-hour week.

Especially with the firefighter overtime bill, I expected the General Assembly to do the ol’ your-turn-my-turn routine, wherein one chamber passes terrible legislation that a powerful special interest or voting bloc wants one year, and the other kills it, with the two switching place the following year.

How does one interpret this outcome, especially with such a blunt show of force (as evidenced by the rapid hearing and vote as well as the refusal of obviously conflicted legislators to recuse)?  It think there are basically two factors in play, and no matter how much weight individual legislators might give to each one, a third consideration is that it’s better to slap taxpayers in the face with 18 months for them to forget the feeling before the next election.

First, with the progressives surging in enthusiasm and starting to play something of the please-don’t-run-a-spoiler role the unions have long played, non-progressive legislators want to buy the goodwill of their long-time labor allies.  The labor union organizers, themselves, tend to align with far-left progressives, but the members not so much, and it will be difficult for the radicals who run the unions to explain to their members why they ought to endorse primary candidates against those who just gave them such nice gifts.

Second, as I noted this morning, the signs are that Rhode Island’s economic recovery, such as it’s been, is coming to an end.  If we see an economic downturn during before the next election, labor unions will be awfully happy that they can just sit on their contracts until the storm is over.  (Whether the next economic storm to hit the Ocean State will ever end is a different question.)  The General Assembly can’t count on continued economic growth to make the question of leverage in contract negotiations mostly academic.

Of course, all of this leaves aside the question of what the state and municipalities will do if fiscally frightening events should come to pass.  My bet would be that they’re taking the attitude that they’ll cross that bridge when they come to it.  The likelihood of the near future is that we’ll have reason to see how extremely callous it was of Democrat Senator Frank Lombardi of Cranston to say: “I need to see a cause and effect that, if we pass this, then the municipalities go bankrupt because of it.  I just don’t see that.”

Set your timers for the inevitable, “How was I supposed to know.”


Featured image: Rhode Island labor leader George Nee.

  • Raymond Carter

    There is nothing surprising about this at all. The moron majority of this state will keep pulling for the D lever metaphorically. Half the state is either too rich or too poor to give a damn about taxes.

    • Rhett Hardwick

      Yes, a problem with a one party state. The politicians are all chasing the same “groups”. Consequently, to assuage those “groups”, the legislators out do each other seeking support against a contender who is likely from the same party.

  • Joe Smith

    Firefighters – It only impacts 3 towns? Coventry (one district), North Kingstown, and Tiverton – all not politically relevant so while the cities and towns may complain about tying their hands, it really just limits options.

    Contract continuation – Well, that’s a dual edge sword. Sure, Warwick reps have pushed this in response to Warwick school district imposing changes during a period when the contract was over and getting a legal ruling no contract actually means no contract. Cities and towns complain it will impact *when* they need concessions..but honestly, how often do they get real concessions? And unions can always “work to rule” – after all, they are only obligated to fulfill the contract.

    Personnel costs are by far the biggest you’ve got a chance to have a pay freeze window by using the same tactics the unions use to slow roll negotiations. What I would worry is in a few years the unions will be back to then add contracts must be made “retroactive”

    Of course, we’ll soon see the GA taking aim at school committees as another favor to teachers union..after all, how do you do “site based management” when you keep bumping, seniority, and all the other rules that inhibits management, whether it’s at the Supt/School Committee level or now at the “principal” level.

    The real losers here are the League of Cities/Towns, RI School Committee Association, and the Dem Mayors (outside Elorza) – clearly almost a unified voice from mainly Democratic municipal leaders and dozens of resolutions mean nothing compared to the union masters. Yeah, we’ll see if Mayor Polisena is all bluster when he said he’d put his GA members on the tax bill. This could be a window for McKee – he should be quietly courting the GOP to support him in the 2022 primary, but the RI GOP is so inept they’ll nominate another no shot candidate and let someone like Elorza or Gobea or Magaziner skate in.

    • ShannonEntropy

      Personnel costs are by far the biggest you’ve got a chance to have a pay freeze window…

      There’s more to “personnel costs” than just pay. One of the biggest bennies of being a public employee is health insurance

      With ever-green contracts the employee’s share of the cost is an absolute fixed number while ins-cos raise premiums every year. There is also no way to change deductibles and co-pays under the ever-green system to hold premium costs down

      Trvst me…. the towns & cities are *really* gonna take a bath on this one :^(

      • Joe Smith

        Shannon – I think in this case it depends. Yes, I get your point if the co-pay is low and the health care costs rise. But pay is still the largest component and for some – arguably not all – the health care co-pay are generally at the unmovable level.

        So while I don’t disagree – how do you pay for that benefits rise ? Well if you now have a freeze for 6 months on pay when I bet most towns/schools budget for 2-3%, that’s a nice savings.

        Plus..the slow down in pay slows down the pension amount..and one of the biggest killers for towns has been the underperforming state pension has driven up the ARC even if the share % is the same.

        Maybe I’m trying to make lemonade out of lemons, but I think it’s going to be variable – of course, the old system was too and a few places like Warwick and Providence have driven the teachers to push for this to preserve the grievance and other “rights” that I thought were ruled null if the contract expires even if the teacher can’t strike / have to work. I also think – though don’t know – that it’s a response to Janus – after all, if the “contract” is always in place, how can anyone else break off. hence while agency fees may have died, break away members can’t negotiate as individuals, which theoretically they could do if a CBA wasn’t in effect. Now that can never happen – the person can break away and lose union benefits, but they are still stuck to the union’s negotiations on pay/benefits, etc.

        hence my fear the next step will be either retroactivity mandates and/or a move to a ‘state wide” contract done by RIDE and a single health care plan..just ask Vermont how that has worked out..

  • Jimmy Adams

    Perhaps it’s time to prohibit unions from donating money to political campaigns.

    • ShannonEntropy

      Ever hear of the SCOTUS case called Citizen’s United ??

      See: Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310 (2010)

      • Joe Smith

        Ironically, almost never brought up by lefties in crying foul over Citizens and Big Corporation influence is that Citizens preserved the union voice and they are just as much, if not more, than any big single corporation.