An arbitrator’s decision on Friday to award Boston police patrol officers a 25.4 percent raise over six years has ignited a firestorm of accusations between city leaders, and seems poised to become a key issue in the suddenly heated-up race for mayor.
Early Saturday, mayoral candidate and state Representative Martin J. Walsh criticized the raise as unaffordable and blasted Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s administration for not resolving the pay dispute during negotiations, instead putting the decision in the hands of a third-party arbitrator. He called for the union and the city to return to the bargaining table.
But Walsh stopped short of echoing Menino’s call for the City Council to vote against the award, suggesting that to do so would violate a sacrosanct tenet of collective bargaining — that the outcome of arbitration is binding.
Menino is urging the City Council, which controls the city’s finances and can vote to not fund the otherwise-binding ruling, to scuttle the award. Menino’s administration wants to avoid setting a precedent that would discourage unions from settling voluntarily when better deals can routinely be had in arbitration.
“Mayor Menino has chosen to pursue irresponsible negotiating tactics” by allowing the negotiations to go to arbitration, Walsh said in a statement. “He has put the City in the untenable position of choosing between an exorbitant arbitration award or reneging on the basic tenets of collective bargaining.”
Menino spokeswoman Dot Joyce disputed that characterization, saying Walsh “doesn’t have the facts.”
“The City of Boston has contracts with 75 percent of our unionized work force that were settled voluntarily,” Joyce said in a phone interview Saturday afternoon. “Right now, there is no reason for public safety unions to negotiate contracts with the city when they always get more in arbitration. The only way to break this cycle is to have the City Council vote ‘no.’ ”
Walsh’s opponent in the race for mayor, Councilor John Connolly, said the representative was playing politics and vowed to gather more information before making a decision on how to vote in the coming week.
“I’m going to review this like a mayor should, which is by gathering the facts and swiftly making an informed decision,” Connolly told reporters at a hastily arranged press conference late Saturday. “It’s outrageous for Marty Walsh to blame the mayor for putting us in this position. The mayor offered the patrol officers a 19 percent raise that was refused. This is not about the mayor. It’s about a broken arbitration process that has put us in this position.”
Connolly also called Walsh’s position contradictory, citing a bill the representative filed in January in the state Legislature that would have eliminated the City Council’s role and made arbitration decisions binding.
Connolly’s campaign circulated copies of the bill, under which the arbitrator’s award of a 25.4 percent raise costing $80 million over six years would have been final.
In response to Connolly’s press conference, Walsh’s campaign released a statement Saturday night saying his bill would have made arbitration binding only if the municipality could afford it and if the decision were “in the interests and welfare of the public.” Friday’s ruling on the patrolmen’s contract would not meet either criteria, the statement said. A spokeswoman for Walsh could not immediately clarify who would determine if a ruling was in the public interest under the bill.
Connolly seemed to agree with Walsh that arbitration should be a last resort. And both candidates have said patrol officers deserve a raise, though neither said how much.
Council President Stephen Murphy joined Walsh in slamming the mayor’s office, condemning Menino’s labor negotiation team for letting the negotiations go to arbitration and for not informing council members of the ruling before announcing it in the media — a move he said showed “a lack of respect.”
“It’s clear there was an abject failure on the part of Menino and his people to not keep it at the bargaining table where they had some control over it,” Murphy said in a phone interview. “A lot of my colleagues are upset about the process.”
Murphy said Menino’s administration should have learned to avoid arbitration after a 2010 contract battle that saw an arbitrator hand Boston firefighters a 19.2 percent raise over four years.
“It’s an abrogation of authority and responsibility on behalf of the City of Boston to put us back here,” Murphy said.
The firefighters settled for a lower amount after the City Council threatened to block the arbitrator’s proposed raise.
Murphy said that since the council is prohibited by law from participating in negotiations, he and other councilors need to learn what offers were floated before making a decision. To that end, Murphy said he would schedule a hearing late this week to “untangle” the process that led to the ruling.
“I want to hear how it went,” he said. “Are both sides to blame, or was one side intransigent? We just don’t know.”
Joyce told the Globe Friday that the patrolmen’s union was seeking a 30 to 33 percent raise; other officials have floated lower numbers.
If the City Council votes against the contract, both sides must renew direct negotiations.
Walsh insisted the city could have done more to reach an agreement with the union. Arbitration is a “jump ball” that rarely yields decisions favorable to the city, he said in an interview Saturday.
“I feel that this contract should have been negotiated,” Walsh said. “We’re talking six years without a contract. That’s just too long. . . . They should be on the phone with each other today talking about, ‘How do we correct this?’ ”
Asked about his initial reaction to the award, Walsh replied, “I said to myself, ‘Oh, my God. That’s a big amount for the taxpayers of Boston.’ ”