It was the latest turn in the political fight that continues to dominate Mayor Michelle Wu’s early tenure as city executive: on Thursday, a judge with the Massachusetts Appeals Court effectively paused Boston’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate days before the city planned to place unvaccinated workers on unpaid leave.
In an order, the judge issued a temporary stay, pending review of a judicial decision made earlier this month declining to block the vaccine requirement, as sought by a trio of public safety unions.
Thursday’s order is the latest development in a clash that has pitted Wu’s new administration against municipal unions over her attempt to require the city’s 18,000-plus workers to be vaccinated to curb the spread of COVID-19 and protect the public. The toughened mandate — which does away with the option for workers to get regular COVID tests in lieu of vaccinations — has made the mayor a focus of widespread anger among city workers. Those hard feelings could mar Wu’s work ahead, including her campaign pledge to use the collective bargaining process to achieve reforms within the Police Department.
The legal pause on Wu’s vaccine mandate came a day after three public safety unions — the Boston Superior Officers Federation, Boston Police Detectives Benevolent Society, and Local 718 — filed an appeal of a judge’s decision rejecting their effort to quash the mandate.
Union officials celebrated the decision. “You can’t just fire these people. They have rights and they have a right to be heard,” Edward Kelly, a Boston firefighter and general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, said at Florian Hall in Dorchester on Thursday. Kelly said the unions want to negotiate a policy that maintains a regular testing option for those who don’t want a vaccine.
He called on Wu to “lead us to a solution that doesn’t end with hard working city employees being terminated.”
Wu, for her part, maintained her stance that her tougher requirement is working.
“The policy has already helped us reach 95 percent vaccination across our city workforce, an overwhelming support for public health and the safety of our colleagues and the communities we serve,” she said Thursday.
“Vaccination is our most powerful tool in this ongoing public health emergency, and we look forward to filing our response with the court,” she added.
Wu has twice pushed back the date when the mandate will be enforced, citing progress in talks with union leaders. Before the judge granted the stay on Thursday, workers who chose not to be vaccinated and had not received exemptions were scheduled to be placed on unpaid leave starting Monday, pending further action.
While only three unions were involved in the litigation, a Wu spokeswoman said the pause of the mandate would be put into effect for all city workers.
Wu has said repeatedly she remains committed to the requirement despite the union opposition, which has come at a time when all of the city’s municipal collective bargaining units — more than 30 unions — are working without a contract.
Tom McKeever, president of SEIU Local 888, which represents about 2,000 city workers, defined the relationship between the Wu administration and municipal unions as “strained, absolutely strained.”
“It’s like we’re screaming into a hollow,” he said. “The city is really taking an anti-union approach.”
McKeever said that fewer than 50 members of his union who work for the city remain unvaccinated. He said he ruled out suing the city over the mandate because he didn’t think litigation would be successful.
McKeever said he did not feel like any progress was being made in contract negotiations or in discussions about the vaccination mandate.
“It’s unbelievably frustrating,” he said.
Wu’s stance has supporters. Sam Tyler, former head of the municipal watchdog the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, said the vaccination mandate is a prudent move and agreed that such a requirement “goes beyond the normal realm of collecting bargaining negotiations.”
“These are public servants who need to protect themselves and need to protect the public they serve,” he said.
Tyler said public opinion will play a part.
“If the public feels that the mayor is right to insist on vaccinations . . . that will greatly strengthen her position in this dispute and perhaps with the contract negotiations as well,” he said.
John Nucci, senior vice president for external affairs at Suffolk University and a former Boston city councilor and mayoral candidate, said it’s not unusual for a Boston mayor to clash with municipal unions. Indeed, Thomas M. Menino locked horns with fire and police unions multiple times during his 20-plus years as mayor, including a multiyear standoff with firefighters over random drug and alcohol testing.
Even former mayor Martin J. Walsh, whose rise to power was rooted in organized labor, had his administration sued by the firefighters union, which alleged repeated violations of its collective bargaining agreement.
“In any situation like this, it’s incumbent on both sides not to get too dug in and create paralysis,” said Nucci. “Hopefully they can work together and create a solution.”
It remains to be seen whether the clash over the vaccine mandate will complicate Wu’s efforts to overhaul policing. She campaigned last year on pursuing substantive police reform through collective bargaining and changes to union contracts.
Jack McDevitt, director of Northeastern University’s Institute on Race and Justice, noted that Boston has a long history of “unions not being advocates for reform.”
“Their actions over the vaccine doesn’t give me a lot of hope,” he said.
On Wednesday, the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, which represents about 1,600 officers, overwhelmingly voted down a proposed agreement that would have established a new benefit providing mental health and wellness days for all vaccinated officers. Nearly 90 percent of members who voted opposed the deal, despite the fact that 95 percent of Boston police officers are vaccinated.
“It’s deeply disappointing that a fringe group pushing conspiracy theories and anti-vax ideology has undermined this process,” Wu said in a statement reacting to the vote. “We are committed to reaching a new collective bargaining agreement with the BPPA that includes necessary transparency and accountability reforms.”
The issue of the vaccination mandate has also caused turmoil within the ranks of some unions. For instance, a vice president for the patrolmen’s union recently resigned and touched on the divisions within that group.
“With everything going on as of late involving COVID I now realize that it is extremely impossible to keep everyone happy,” Richard Withington said in his letter of resignation, which was first reported by Live Boston 617. There are also rumblings within the union that some members who opposed the vaccine mandate would like to recall its leader, Larry Calderone, over his response to the new requirement.
John Soares, president of Local 718, which represents Boston firefighters, said he spoke to one firefighter who was contemplating moving to Florida because of the mandate.
“If one person quits, I’ve lost,” he said. “I don’t see how we can come back from that.”
Soares did not dispute that the battle over vaccinations could portend a rough contract negotiation for his union.
“If we can’t come to a compromise on this, how are we going to sit down and do a contract?” he said.
Tonya Alanez and Jeremiah Manion of the Globe staff and correspondent Nick Stoico contributed to this report.