Republican Governor Charlie Baker just won a key labor board ruling that allows him to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for state troopers and fire those who don’t comply. Meanwhile, Michelle Wu, the progressive mayor of Boston, backed down on a vaccine mandate for teachers — and could be ready to do the same for police and firefighters, with perhaps even more concessions.
Follow the science. Stand up to unions, especially those representing police. That was part of the intoxicating cocktail of progressive promises served up during Wu’s successful campaign for mayor. But right now, it’s Baker — who started off saying he could not envision a vaccine mandate for state employees — who’s more closely following the science on vaccines and doing more when it comes to standing up to law enforcement. Given the power that unions wield with Democrats, and the willingness of their members and advocates to inflict pain on anyone who crosses them, that outcome shouldn’t be a surprise. Still, it’s disappointing from a new city administration.
Wu is feeling the sting of union opposition, as firefighters stalk her public events and anti-vax protesters stake out her home. During a recent live Instagram event, she was inundated with comments from people opposed to COVID-19 mask and vaccine mandates in the city — which Fox News host Tucker Carlson joyfully used as a way to mock her.
The pushback seems to be working. Last week, Wu and the Boston Teachers Union announced an agreement that allows unvaccinated teachers to continue working when COVID-19 cases are low, if they agree to twice-a-week testing. Teachers can also use accrued paid sick leave during periods of high COVID transmission. Unions representing police and firefighters have already rejected a similar deal, which seems to set the stage for even more backsliding from the city. An appellate court is still reviewing a lawsuit filed by several employee unions against the city. Meanwhile, Boston’s business community, anxious to get the city back to some kind of post-pandemic normal, has been quiet when it comes to Wu’s ongoing fight with labor.
The politics for Baker are quite different. Now in the final year of his second term, he’s not seeking reelection, which gives him freedom to do whatever he thinks is right. What he thinks is right also plays to his natural anti-union instincts. State Police corruption has been an ongoing headache for the Baker administration, and, in 2020, the governor signed major police reform legislation, which creates a mandatory certification process for police officers; increases accountability and transparency; and gives police departments greater control over hiring. Even so, his journey from vaccine mandate opponent to supporter is worthy of a chapter in his new book.
Last May, Baker said, “The idea that I would kick somebody out of a job — and especially in the kind of economy we have now — because quote-unquote, they wouldn’t get vaccinated right away. . . . No. I’m not gonna play that game.” Then, in August, Baker decided to play that game by implementing one of the strictest vaccine mandates in the country for all state employees. At the time, he said his change of mind related to the broader availability of the vaccine and more “clear-cut evidence” about the effectiveness of the vaccine in making COVID-19 less lethal. “The one thing I’m pretty sure about is that everybody who gets vaccinated is going to be in a far better place than the people who don’t. So, let’s do all we can to try to get as many people vaccinated as we possibly can,” he said then.
A judge upheld the vaccine mandate when the State Police union challenged it in court. Then, last week, the Massachusetts Employment Labor Relations Board ruled that Baker was acting within his authority “under exigent circumstances” to require employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and that the policy did not have to be negotiated with unions. According to CommonWealth magazine, that represents the union’s final avenue of appeal within the state Department of Labor. However, a spokesman for the union told me that union leadership is “working with counsel to determine what the next steps should be.”
At the state level, the fight over vaccine mandates is not over. But Boston seems close to surrender. So much for following the science and standing up to unions.