Boston police patrolmen are expected to receive a major arbitration award in coming days that could thrust a high-profile labor dispute into a heated race for mayor.
Arriving just weeks before the Nov. 5 election, the award could plunge City Hall back into the kind of conflict it saw in 2010, when a fight over a Boston firefighters’ contract, with a 19.2 percent arbitration award, dominated for weeks.
Details of the patrolmen’s award remain confidential, because it has not been finalized, but two officials said they were told it is a six-year deal that would raise police pay by 23 percent or more.
The timing of the decision on the patrolmen’s contract will put a spotlight on Boston’s two finalists for mayor and how they might handle future contact negotiations with the city’s public safety unions.
“This will really have an impact in the campaign with respect to collective bargaining with public safety unions,” said Samuel R. Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research, a fiscal watchdog funded by businesses and nonprofits.
“Is there any reason for the firefighters’ union and police unions not to go to arbitration? They get a better deal. How does the next mayor address that issue?”
Thirty of Boston’s employee unions have agreed to six-year contracts with raises worth just over 12 percent. That includes the Boston Teachers Union, the city’s largest union with 7,700 members.
The patrolmen’s contract expired in 2010. After 24 negotiating sessions, the contract went to arbitration before a three-member panel. Once the arbitration award is official, the mayor’s office is required to endorse it and send it to the City Council, which must vote on whether to fund the contract.
The council vote could be a difficult decision for Councilor at Large John R. Connolly, one of two finalists for mayor. Voting in favor of a large award could upset taxpayers, while voting against it could anger police. His campaign has received $2,400 in donations from police, according to records with the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance. Connolly’s campaign declined to comment Thursday.
A generous award for the union could also be problematic for the other finalist, state Representative Martin J. Walsh. Critics have questioned whether Walsh, a favorite of organized labor, will be able to fairly negotiate union contracts. He has been endorsed by the firefighters union and has received more than $16,000 in donations from people who identified themselves as police officers.
Walsh’s campaign said via e-mail that it could not comment because it did not know the details of the award.
The Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, which has more than 1,460 members, has not endorsed a candidate for mayor. Thomas J. Nee, the union’s president, did not return a phone message seeking comment. In August, the union informed its members that the negotiating panel was meeting almost weekly and that a decision was expected by the end of September.
“We are moving as quickly as possible, given all the complexities of the issues,” the union’s attorney, Susan Horwitz said, according to an update posted on the union website.
Other police unions have high interest in the outcome of the negotiations.
“Everyone has been waiting, anxiously waiting,” said an official from another union who asked for anonymity because the award is not yet public.
“They’re the biggest union in the city out of the four [police unions], and they carry the most weight,” the official said. “Historically, whatever the patrol officers get, we all get.”
The official said that the unions representing detectives, superior detectives, and superior officers still need to negotiate other issues in their contracts. But the largest point of contention, salary increases, typically reflects what patrol officers receive.
In 2010, Councilor Michael P. Ross was council president and threatened to reject the firefighters’ award, forcing the union to return to the bargaining table. Firefighters ultimately received a deal that included raises worth more than 17 percent over five years and a bump on the last day of the contract that amounted to raises worth 21.5 percent.
“I’m absolutely proud of how we handled ourselves in 2010,” Ross said Thursday. “I think we should be proud for negotiating a better deal for the taxpayers of this city.”
Councilor Stephen J. Murphy, the current president, called this week for a hearing to examine the council’s role when the union receives an arbitration award and determine why the patrolmen’s negotiations broke down.
Speaking in the council chamber Wednesday, Murphy told his colleagues that they overstepped their authority in dealing with the firefighters.
“In 2010, I saw our role perverted in a way,” Murphy said, warning that the city charter barred the council from negotiating contracts. “It was a bad precedent foisted upon us.”
The debate in the City Council over whether to fund the patrolmen’s award will probably spill into the mayor’s race, but former city councilor Michael J. McCormack said he was not sure how it might play out. Connolly could try to use to highlight Walsh’s ties to labor, but there is also a risk.
“He may try to exploit it, but John has to vote on it,” said McCormack. “Frankly, people like cops, and they like firemen. I don’t know if there is a whole lot of political capital to be gained.”
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