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The Boston Globe

Opinion

LAWRENCE HARMON

Beware the mark of the arbitrator

The Boston City Council held a hearing on Wednesday about the contract for the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association.

David L. Ryan/Globe staff

The Boston City Council held a hearing on Wednesday about the contract for the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association.

On Wednesday, the Boston City Council was struggling to make sense of arbitrator Tim Buckalew’s recent salary award of 25.4 percent over six years to the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association. At the same time and just a short distance away, about 200 arbitrators gathered at the Hynes Convention Center for a meeting organized by the Minnesota-based Labor Arbitration Institute. Finally, an opportunity to see members of this controversial profession up close and personal.

Few professions are capable of drawing such ire. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino almost blew a gasket upon learning of Buckalew’s award, which was double the hike that the city had negotiated with about 30 other municipal unions. City Council President Stephen Murphy referred to Buckalew as “mental’’ during a radio interview. That was actually a measured response when it comes to discussing the work product of arbitrators. “Off with his head,’’ reads a 2012 Chicago Tribune headline referring — sort of tongue-in-cheek — to the appropriate punishment for an arbitrator who reduced the suspensions of a group of thieving Chicago firefighters.

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The arbitrators at the convention center, it turned out, didn’t bite. A few napped. But mostly they sat diligently at their desks and listened to a moderator read case studies on contract law. Next they compared their responses with a group of five expert panelists. By this measurement, the men and women who settle labor grievances and resolve collective bargaining impasses came across as pretty even-handed. In almost every exercise, they reached the same conclusion as the experts, regardless of whether the outcome favored management or labor.

Yet none of the cases matched the complexity of the local contract fight that turns on the definition of compensation parity between Boston’s police and fire departments. In essence, Buckalew’s ruling gave no weight to the overtime and detail pay of police officers when comparing their salaries with those of firefighters. The outsize award drives up the cost of the contract by about $80 million, more than twice the cost of the city’s offer. And other public safety unions are almost certain to demand similar raises.

The arbitrators at the convention center went to great pains to describe how definitions, past practice, bargaining history, and other factors play into their thinking. The Boston City Council, which must vote up or down on the award, is asking for similar details from Buckalew. But so far, he has rejected the request.

“My thinking is expressed in the award itself,’’ said Buckalew during a short telephone interview. But it would be a real stretch for an average reader of the 11-page award to understand his rationale. Buckalew needs to lay it out in simple language for the taxpayers who get stuck with the bill.

One of the afternoon panelists, arbitrator James Cooper, had a perfect excuse for not wanting to talk about the police award. He is married to Susan Horwitz, the attorney who negotiated on behalf of the patrolmen. But Cooper would discuss the field in general terms. There are no academic or training requirements to be an arbitrator, he said, although about half the practitioners are lawyers. Experienced arbitrators can demand $1,500 for a day’s work. And they are free to apply their judgment on topics ranging from the narrowest work rule to the long-term impact of a public safety contract.

Few professions are capable of drawing such ire.

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Cooper said that Buckalew is known in the field for fairness and diligence. And he is definitely “not a mental case.’’ Cooper seemed a bit surprised, however, that Buckalew had not provided an in-depth explanation for his award.

Cooper also contends that the absence of a permanent chair at the state Joint Labor Management Committee, which steps in to resolve tricky disputes between municipalities and public safety unions, is exacerbating tensions in the field. Other labor specialists, however, said that the committee functions well under interim leadership.

Still, Cooper sees trouble ahead.

“In the absence of strong leadership,’’ said Cooper, “the arbitrator stands alone and naked.’’ He might easily have added a third modifier — despised.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com
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