Friday, June 8, 2012

The New Way of Negotiating Contracts

The new way of negotiating contracts, from the governmental employers’ point of view, harkens back to the dark ages when employers simply threatened to fire workers if they demanded higher wages or better working conditions. These days the threat used is that of bankruptcy.

As everyone seems to fall over themselves hurling kudos at Mayor Taveras for negotiating a deal with the unions to reach an agreement regarding union concessions in pension reform, they don’t seem to be bothered by the method the mayor took along the way. I guess this shouldn’t come as such a surprise to me, but it does.

We (labor unions in Providence) have just finished an eight year span of dealing with a mayor who had no moral compass. He lied to us (and to everyone else) every time we were forced to deal with him. The election of a new, seemingly reasonable and trustworthy mayor brought us new hope and began to restore our morale. It is because of this renewed faith in leadership that his actions have destroyed, once again, our trust in dealing with politicians.

I guess we shouldn’t be all that surprised. After all, it seems that the new “normal” is for employers (whether government entities or private sector) to simply throw out contracts that don’t seem to work for them anymore. It used to be that only professional athletes could demand a renegotiation in the middle of a contract. Most of us working people felt that this was unfair in theory. After all, no athlete ever attempted to renegotiate a lower paying contract when he didn’t play up to expectations. Similarly, no employer has ever voluntarily opened up a standing contract to give the employees more money or benefits – it’s always because they want concessions from their employees.

Mayor Taveras is being hailed as a hero for being part of the, as yet to be ratified, pending pension deal. I commend him on that accomplishment also. However, I know that he has done irreparable harm to his relationships with the police and fire department’s personnel – and the retirees. While this might not be important to most people, it could come back to haunt him in future negotiations and relations.

Paul Doughty, president of the firefighter’s union, was raked over the coals both locally and nationally when he asked the rhetorical question, “What was the rush?”. He went on to state that he felt the unions and retirees and the administration had enough time and desire on all sides to “negotiate” a compromise. I guess he was right after all. The mayor and the council could have drawn up their ordinances (their way of circumventing the contracts) and kept them on hold until time was almost up for the fiscal year and sat down to negotiate in good faith with all involved. Instead they passed the ordinances in an attempt to extort the concessions they felt they needed.

I give a big pat on the back to the union leaders who put their animosity, and that of their members, aside to attempt to reach a compromise that both sides could live with. I also want to warn the mayor and all those who think this is a done deal to temper their expectations. I hope it passes. I expect it to pass, but that’s not a sure thing. There are many current members of both departments who feel that they can’t trust this mayor. There are many who believe that once he gets these concessions he’ll be back for more dramatic concessions next fiscal year. After all, he renegotiated our old contract just about 9 months ago, getting all the concessions he said he needed to get through these tough times. That’s the problem when contracts are so easily broken – it’s no longer enough to get the signatures on the agreement, you also need to trust the person who has signed.