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OPINION

Labor’s power play against Wu’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate

Her mandate for city workers is worth the fight, even as it shows how hard it is to shake the power of unions.

Firefighters protest Boston Mayor Michelle Wu's vaccine mandate at Florian Hall on Jan. 21.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

The large crowd of firefighters holding signs outside Boston City Hall on Monday morning were doing what they are used to doing in this city. They are trying to get their way with another mayor.

Let’s hope Mayor Michelle Wu stands up to them, as promised.

Via protests and legal challenges, Boston firefighters are leading the public fight against a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for city workers, alleging that it violates their collective bargaining agreement. Faced with resistance from Boston Firefighters Local 718 and other first responders, Wu just announced the city is extending the deadline to Jan. 30 to show proof of at least partial vaccination. The original Jan. 15 deadline had already been put off a week. On Monday, Wu said anyone not in compliance by Jan. 30 will be notified and placed on unpaid leave.

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If she follows through on that, Wu will be doing the right thing for the health and safety of city workers and the public they serve. The policy is worth the fight, even as it shows how hard it is to shake the power of unions. This battle is not unique to Boston. It’s playing out across the country. But here, a new, progressive, and relatively young mayor promised to “lean in” to change the status quo. If she didn’t know it before, she knows now that when it comes to labor unions, leaning won’t be enough. Unions push back hard.

It’s no surprise that Boston’s firefighters are on the front lines of this battle. The union that represents them has a long tradition of loud, in-your-face protest — sometimes literally. As recounted by Boston magazine, a firefighter protesting mayor Tom Menino’s State of the City address in 2001 spat on the mayor’s wife, Angela, when the two walked past a picket line during a contract dispute, and Menino was regularly heckled at Christmas tree lightings. Local 718 endorsed Marty Walsh when he first ran for mayor, in 2013. But after a city report characterized the Boston Fire Department as male-dominated and resistant to change, Walsh proposed a series of relatively mild reforms to address diversity and wellness issues. That’s when Local 718 filed suit against the Walsh administration, alleging violations of their collective bargaining agreement. In 2021, the union endorsed mayoral candidate Annissa Essaibi George, who lost to Wu, and now the union is actively opposing Wu’s vaccine policy.

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Last week, Local 718 was front and center at a press conference at Dorchester’s Florian Hall that featured signs reading “Mayor Wu Anti-Labor” and “Mayor Wu Burns Firefighters.” John Soares, the union’s president, told the Globe that the city’s approach to the vaccination mandate is going to cause “irreparable harm, irreparable harm to the union, irreparable harm to the city.” The harm, according to Soares, was that as many as 175 firefighters could be placed on leave because of the mandate. The next day, Local 718 tweeted a photo of members standing in front of TD Garden holding similar signs. The union sought an injunction to block the vaccine policy, but a judge denied the request.

There’s no discounting the public service provided by firefighters and the danger it entails. But that doesn’t give them a pass on other issues. The science on COVID-19 vaccines is clear: The vaccines protect against death and serious illness. If you claim to serve the public interest, being vaccinated is part of the equation.

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At Monday’s press conference, Wu said that 94 percent of the city workforce is in compliance with the vaccine policy, and that specifically 91 percent of the Boston Fire Department is in compliance. In the name of personal freedom, those who aren’t vaccinated are apparently willing to put their co-workers, along with the public they serve, at risk. In the name of public service, that shouldn’t be allowed.

According to Wu, “conversations are going very well with our municipal union partners.” But if agreement isn’t reached on the mandate, “this policy will be implemented,” she said.

In the end, the battle over vaccines is a fight for the common good. That should be Wu’s first interest, no matter how hard firefighters press for their own selfish ones.


Joan Vennochi can be reached at joan.vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.