A labor arbitration panel last week rewarded stonewalling tactics by the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association with a 25.4 percent raise over six years — roughly double the increase received by 30 other city unions, including Boston’s teachers. It’s a shocking move that will add $83 million over six years to the city’s budget — tens of millions more than would be necessary to give hard-working police officers pay hikes comparable to those of private-sector workers. The sting will be even greater for the city’s taxpayers, who can expect additional public-safety unions to use the arbitration process to achieve parity with the patrolmen. In the warped structure of the arbitration process, even the most unjustified raises to one union become baselines for other unions seeking hikes. Indeed, the big award to the patrolmen’s union was based in part on an argument that, by certain measures, the firefighters’ union was earning more.
It’s time to stop this costly merry-go-round.
Thankfully, state law gives municipal legislative bodies the authority to reject appropriations for labor contracts, thereby forcing the parties to return to the collective bargaining table. That needs to happen now. But it’s unclear whether the majority of Boston’s 13-member City Council will stand up to the politically powerful public-safety unions in an election year. City councilors often complain that the city charter limits their clout. Well, now is their chance to take charge by rejecting a contract that would cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars more than is either fair or necessary. That money could go to vital needs like expanding the number of pre-K slots in Boston schools, or keeping more officers on the beat. And Boston police would remain the highest paid of any city in Massachusetts.
Boston officers now earn an average annual salary of about $109,000, including overtime and police details. This amounts to healthy remuneration for the dangerous work they do, especially since it comes with benefits that private-sector workers could only dream of, including retirement at age 55. On top of all this compensation, there is no rational justification for giving police officers twice the pay hikes of other hard-working city workers who earn, on average, about half as much.
Equally galling, taxpayers would receive little in return for the patrolmen’s pay hike other than management’s ability to use GPS tracking devices in patrol cars — an upgrade so mundane that it’s shocking it’s even part of the collective-bargaining process — and minor adjustments to the composition of some anti-crime units.
Mayoral candidates John Connolly and Martin Walsh each pledged during the preliminary election to protect the fiscal stability of the city. Now comes the test. Walsh is a state representative who has spent much of his career promoting labor causes. He has stated that the award to the patrolmen is too high and that they should return to the bargaining table. But earlier this year, he filed legislation that appears to allow arbitrators’ decisions to go through without the approval of municipal legislators. It’s essentially the same ill-conceived bill that the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts tried to foist off on the public several years ago.
Connolly, a city councilor, now has the opportunity to stand out as the protector of the public purse. He initially seemed cautious about staking out a firm position on the issue. If, as is now expected, he votes against the arbitration panel’s award, it will be a clear message to voters that he is the candidate of fiscal stability. Where Walsh stands remains something of a mystery, but he, too, should come out before the vote and urge councilors to reject this award.
Boston is still recovering from a recession that limited the city’s revenue growth. This award to the patrolmen’s union is a dangerous precedent. And it won’t be sustainable once the city’s firefighters and police superior officers manipulate arbitration panels into making similar awards. Municipal legislators around Massachusetts are starting to wake up to the fact that they can set limits on bloated arbitration awards. Boston city councilors found the courage to do so in 2010 when they sent firefighters back to the negotiation table. Now they should give equal treatment to the police.
Eventually, the public-safety unions will come to understand that they need to deal with the city on equal footing, rather than hold out for wildly unrealistic amounts, and then hope an arbitration panel decides to split the difference.