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The Boston Globe

Metro

Yvonne Abraham

Laboring over a political position

Aw, come on, Marty Walsh. This is embarrassing.

I just got done telling people there was more to you than the labor thing. Then, within days of becoming one of two finalists for mayor, you go and say a bunch of things that make me look like a wally.

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Talk about rotten timing. Just as you were starting to define yourself on the big stage, an arbitrator awarded the Boston police patrol officers what the city says is a whopping 25.4 percent pay and benefits increase over six years. The mayor was outraged, and rightly so. The city can’t afford the $83 million that will cost. More important, it can’t afford all of the raises that will now be demanded by other police unions — and firefighters — seeking parity. And on it will go, forever and ever, Amen.

And this while workers all over the city are taking no pay increases, or worse. And while other public unions, like teachers, are settling for smaller raises.

Public safety unions know the score: Hold out long enough in negotiations and they’ll eventually end up in arbitration, a.k.a. the promised land. Arbitrators are supposed to be grown-ups, judiciously weighing competing claims. But lately, they’ve just been splitting babies, requiring parties to meet halfway no matter how inflated the union’s demands. They’re like indulgent grandparents, merrily filling the kids up on Skittles and Laffy Taffy and then sending them home for parents to deal with the sugar mania and dental work.

The only checks on this craziness are city councils and town meetings, which can reject arbitrators’ awards, thereby forcing parties back to the table. Mayor Tom Menino immediately called on the City Council to do just that.

Then everybody turned to you, the former labor chief who wants to replace Menino, to see what you’d say. If you wanted to prove you weren’t a union flunky, this was the time. Instead, you issued two confounding statements that did the opposite. On Friday, in a major dodge, you criticized the lawyers who were making money off the negotiations. Everybody hates lawyers, right? Then on Saturday, you conceded the deal was unaffordable, but set your sights on Menino, saying he had “chosen to pursue irresponsible negotiating tactics,” as if he alone were to blame. He isn’t.

Then, most damaging, it turned out that you, as a state rep., had repeatedly filed legislation — written with firefighters – to make arbitration binding, taking away from city councils the power to say no.

Meanwhile, your opponent John Connolly, while not exactly cutting a profile in courage — his response to a police union questionnaire is as pandery as yours (Fie on civilian flaggers! Yay for the civil service exam!) — strode across City Hall Plaza’s red tundra Tuesday to announce he would vote against the contract. Standing at the lectern before sweating reporters, he looked downright mayoral. He even refused to answer off-topic questions.

You know I’m fond of you, mate. I like that you’re honest and that you’ve conquered some very long odds and that you’ve taken courageous votes on marriage equality and the death penalty. I even like that you call me dear — “dare” is how you say it — though I’m old enough to be your slightly older sister. So I called you Wednesday, hoping you’d fix all of this, so we could move on.

Instead, you insisted the legislation you filed would actually make it less attractive for unions to go to arbitration, the trip to grandma’s candyland unappealing. “I go back to my understanding of what I think this legislation does,” you said, not very unequivocally. “It makes it more onerous for these guys to come to arbitration and keeps them in negotiation.”

You had no good answer when I asked why a union would write legislation that does this. When I pushed you hard, you finally conceded the bill makes arbitration final.

I know you mean it when you say labor negotiations won’t break down when you’re mayor, so there will be no need for arbitration. “I am going to sit down at the table myself and personally make sure this gets resolved,” you said.

I want to believe you. But, given recent history, that seems a little naive. And naive isn’t very mayoral.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com.
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