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In ongoing COVID-19 vaccine mandate battle, frictions emerge between council and Wu

Boston Mayor Michelle WuCraig F. Walker/Globe Staff

The stalemate between Mayor Michelle Wu and municipal labor unions over her COVID-19 vaccination mandate is sparking political pushback from a source close to the mayor’s heart: the Boston City Council.

The political jousting between Wu, who served on the council for more than seven years, and certain councilors is the latest development in a conflict that has dominated the early part of Wu’s tenure in City Hall’s fifth-floor corner office. Three of the city’s public safety unions have taken the mayor to court over her push to ensure that the entire city’s workforce is vaccinated. Wu’s move has also led to consistent protests outside her Roslindale home and at numerous public events.

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At last week’s City Council meeting, a group of councilors pushed for a hearing regarding the city’s much-debated mandate that requires the city’s roughly 19,000 employees be vaccinated against COVID-19. The four councilors — Erin Murphy, Frank Baker, Michael Flaherty, and Ed Flynn — who made the proposal presented themselves as allies of the unions when they were discussing the hearing order, with some detailing their personal connections to organized labor.

The hearing they requested, which will discuss COVID-19 agreements between the city and the unions, as well as the vaccination mandate, is scheduled for Friday. Officials from the mayor’s office, the executive director of the of the public health commission, and representatives from the various municipal bargaining units are invited to testify.

That councilors’ request for the hearing states that Wu’s mandate “is requiring a condition of work that is not in the contract,” adding that “all workers have a right to a safe workplace and also have a right to have their voices heard through collective bargaining.” Any changes that are made to a preexisting memorandum of agreement between the unions and the city regarding COVID-19 policy should have the opportunity to be collectively bargained, the order argues.

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Their proposal seemingly rejects Wu’s argument that the city does not need to bargain over the tightened vaccine mandate, which did away with the option for city workers to get regular COVID tests in lieu of jabs, because it is essential to public health given the ongoing pandemic.

Meanwhile, two of the councilors who backed the hearing are also questioning the state of emergency status for the City of Boston. The duo want a second hearing to discuss “the data used to keep the city in a state of emergency for almost two years.” The emergency order gives the city temporary power to “suspend collective bargaining rights, contract obligations, and the rights of businesses and individuals,” according to a release from Baker’s office.

Baker said there has been a lack of communication from the Wu administration regarding the pandemic and the mandates it triggered.

During Wednesday’s council meeting, Baker said he wants to have an in-person hearing on the matter, adding that if the Wu administration does not want to have a discussion about the pandemic-related state of emergency, than it should drop its various mandates.

“This is just a plea to give people an opportunity to ask what is going on here,” he said. “It looks political to me.”

At the same meeting, Murphy, newly elected to the council this past fall, said Boston has seen COVID cases drop dramatically in recent weeks. She also questioned whether the city’s health board that governs the Boston Public Health Commission had met recently and whether that panel had voted on COVID-19 restrictions.

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“Things are changing rapidly,” said Murphy.

It wasn’t all criticism. Councilor Lydia Edwards praised the Wu administration’s handling of the pandemic, noting that the vast majority of the city’s workforce is vaccinated. Wu’s vaccine mandate, she said, likely played a prominent role in that. The city’s pandemic measures, she said, may have helped decrease the virus case numbers in recent weeks.

The City Council meeting came on the same day that state authorities announced a significant change in COVID restrictions for Massachusetts, with Governor Charlie Baker announcing that the statewide mask mandate for K-12 schools will be lifted Feb. 28.

In response to statements from Baker and Murphy, a Wu spokeswoman said this week the city’s top priority remains keeping residents safe.

“We will continue to work together with the Boston Public Health Commission to ensure our COVID-19 policies and protocol reflect the current COVID-19 metrics to protect the health of all Boston residents,” she said.

Wu on Tuesday did lay out the metrics that would be used to determine when to lift the city’s vaccination requirement for certain indoor spaces in Boston, but those metrics would not affect the workforce vaccination mandate, a Wu spokeswoman said.

There are vaccine mandates for government workforces in other parts of the country. A crucial deadline for New York City’s vaccine mandate for its municipal workers is days away. In San Francisco, all city workers are supposed to be fully vaccinated and report their vaccination status as a condition of employment. California’s Los Angeles County also has a vaccine mandate for its public workers.

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But at the federal level, the Biden administration has hit numerous road blocks on vaccine mandates, including last month, when a federal judge stopped the administration from enforcing a COVID-19 vaccination requirement for the federal workforce; the administration is appealing the ruling.

Locally, the pitched battle between the municipal unions and the Wu administration appears to be in a holding pattern for now. Both sides are waiting for an appellate judge to rule on the appeal filed by three Boston public safety unions who want the court to scrap the vaccine mandate.

The three unions Boston Firefighters Local 718, Boston Police Superior Officers Federation, and the Boston Police Detectives Benevolent Society — sued the city in late December, arguing that Wu’s mandate would violate existing labor agreements. In January, a Suffolk Superior Court judge declined to block the mandate, citing “the public health emergency.” The unions appealed that decision, leading the Massachusetts Appeals Court to effectively pause Wu’s vaccine mandate until it makes a ruling.

Other city unions are unhappy with the mandate as well, but are not plaintiffs in that courtroom fight. A spokeswoman for the Boston Teachers Union said Tuesday that impact bargaining is continuing between union and Wu administration officials as both sides await the appeals court decision.

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That union, along with multiple public safety unions, met with the mayor last Thursday. BTU was also part of nine-hour negotiations on Friday and met with city officials again on Tuesday afternoon.

The Boston Superior Officers Federation, one of the three unions behind the litigation challenging the vaccine mandate, said it had no news to share on the subject on Tuesday.

Friction between a Boston mayor and councilors is not unusual. Wu herself clashed at times with former mayor Martin J. Walsh during her seven-plus years on the council. Just this past summer, relations also frayed between the city’s legislative body and Acting Mayor Kim Janey to the point where the council passed a rule change that hypothetically could have given members the power to remove Janey as acting executive.

Correction: Due to an error made by the Boston City Clerk’s Office, a previous version of this story inaccurately listed the co-sponsors of a proposal calling for a hearing to discuss COVID-19 agreements between the city and the unions. Councilor Ricardo Arroyo was not a co-sponsor of that measure.


Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him @Danny__McDonald.