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The Boston Globe

Opinion

SCOT LEHIGH

How to fix the arbitration process

Mayoral candidates Marty Walsh, left, and John Connolly face an arbitration controversy.

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe/file

Mayoral candidates Marty Walsh, left, and John Connolly face an arbitration controversy.

In early September, I asked the Boston mayoral candidates if they saw a need to reform the current arbitration process, which often sees public-safety unions holding out for arbitration in the hope of getting a richer deal than they would at the bargaining table.

John Connolly said he was comfortable with the current process. Marty Walsh rejected the notion that arbitration lessened the public-safety unions’ incentives to bargain seriously.

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Since then, reality has intervened in the form of an arbitrator-awarded police-pay package that, on average, will mean a 25.4 pay increase over six years. What’s more, we’ve learned that Boston Carmen’s Union Local 589 has won an arbitration award that, unless overturned in court, will raise the average T worker’s pay by more than 10 percent and could suck up as much as $88 million of the $118 million in new funding the Legislature has appropriated to make the financially shaky agency whole next year. That decision has even the union-friendly Patrick administration up in arms.

Given that both Connolly and Walsh have declared the police-pay package unaffordable, I wondered if either candidate had changed his view of arbitration.

Connolly has. “There has to be a change in arbitration. It is not working,” he told me. “I do believe it has a place, but seeing this ... award, I think we have to fix arbitration.” He adds: “I’ve also come to see very clearly that the City Council has to be a last line of review. It is a check and balance that we definitely need.”

And as for Walsh? The usually accessible state representative took refuge in a statement that sidestepped my question. Walsh’s course has been to fault Menino for letting the police contract go to arbitration in the first place. But blaming the mayor is, well, a cop-out, an obvious attempt to escape the political pickle Walsh faces.

Having filed legislation that would eliminate any oversight role for the City Council and make such an arbitrator’s award binding, Walsh would have to reverse himself to now call for the council to reject the police pay package. No wonder, then, that his statement also dodged my question about what the council should do.

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As should be obvious to all, the arbitration process doesn’t work in a fiscally responsible fashion, and for completely understandable reasons. The arbitration awards are decided by three-member panels. One member is chosen by management, a second by labor. The third — the supposedly neutral arbitrator, and the one who actually makes the decision — must be agreed to by both sides. Arbitrators know unions won’t accept them for arbitration if they haven’t previously shown an inclination for, at very least, splitting the difference between the two sides.

The only real-world affordability check is that the Boston City Council can reject an arbitrator’s award. And that’s a very good thing — unless, that is, one happens to be a lily-livered Boston city councilor. Given their (mis)directed anger at Mayor Menino and his team for supposedly putting them in this position, some councilors obviously find the role of occasional fiscal steward uncomfortable. If they can’t take the heat, they should find another job.

Second, the city needs an explicit policy on what compensation will be included when comparing public-safety salaries. When the police make their parity-in-pay push, they argue that their detail and overtime pay shouldn’t count, since those payments don’t factor into pension calculations. When the firefighters make theirs, they argue that a police officer’s overtime and detail pay has to be figured into the compensation comparisons.

As to arbitration itself, it’s really not necessary. Other municipal employees, who are also legally forbidden from striking, don’t enjoy recourse to a similar pay-enhancing process.

Short of its elimination, however, several things should be done to reform arbitration. When the two sides enter the process, their contract offers or requests should become public. Taxpayers, who will fund any eventual award, deserve a window on the process. And the prospect of public reaction might well prove a moderating influence on all parties, including the arbitrator.

Another needed change: Under current law, mayors are constrained from arguing against an arbitrator’s award. That restriction, which obviously isn’t always fully honored, should be eliminated altogether. A mayor should be able to express himself fully and forthrightly on any arbitrator’s award.

As it now exists, the arbitration process is broken. It’s time for fiscally responsible policy makers, including would-be mayors, to acknowledge that all-too-obvious reality.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GlobeScotLehigh.

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