In her first 100 days in office, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu has racked up a notable list of accomplishments, from moving more than 150 people living at the entrenched tent encampment at Mass. and Cass into temporary housing, to expanding fare-free transit, to managing more than one significant snowstorm without major mishap.
But looming over her fast-paced first weeks has been a fight both unique to the current moment and canonical in Boston politics: the contentious labor dispute over her vaccine mandate for city workers.
Those clashes, both political and legal, are a reminder that even a mayor determined to usher the city into the future must contend with those who’ve been its power brokers in the past. As Wu works to push the city in new directions and to new heights, she’s been dogged by age-old battles with Boston’s powerful public safety unions, which have dragged her administration into court, sapped attention from her other priorities, and drawn vehement protests to her public appearances.
“There’s been a lot of noise, but it hasn’t distracted from what we’ve gotten done,” Wu said on Friday in an interview with the Globe. “At this point, 100 days in, I am really inspired that we have been able to accomplish even more than I thought possible.”
Even announced in the pre-holiday haze, Wu’s vaccine mandate for city workers immediately stoked opposition. The mandate made inoculation a condition of employment, meaning unvaccinated workers risked termination, and city unions argued Wu’s toughened requirement violated a previous labor agreement that allowed workers to choose testing instead of shots in arms. Boston Firefighters Local 718, Boston Police Superior Officers Federation, and the Boston Police Detectives Benevolent Society sued the city in late December.
As demonstrators shouted outside her home and union members protested her at events across the city, Wu delayed enforcement of the mandate by one week, then another. Then a court put it on hold.
Now, more than a month after the mandate was to go into effect, hundreds of unvaccinated employees remain on the city’s payroll. And Wu has retreated from the mandate’s core provision, inking an agreement with the Boston Teachers Union that allows unvaccinated educators to keep working in schools during periods of low virus transmission, so long as they are tested regularly.
Meanwhile, Governor Charlie Baker’s vaccine mandate for Massachusetts executive department employees remains in place without a testing option, and his administration has won every legal challenge it faced. New York City fired 1,430 municipal workers who failed to prove they had been vaccinated, after that city, too, took away its testing option.
Wu said Boston will keep fighting in court to enforce its mandate, but acknowledged that the current situation is imperfect.
“Coming into office right as a surge was starting, and with preexisting arrangements that our unions had been used to, was not ideal,” she said. When leading a major city through a pandemic, she said, “I don’t think there’s ever an ideal situation.”
Compromising with the teachers union was a way of managing the city’s resources, Wu added.
“Do we continue to spend energy and time on a small percentage who fights to remain unvaccinated?” she questioned. “Or do we come up with an arrangement that keeps everyone safe by setting clear metrics around what happens during a surge?”
Wu aides frame the mandate as at least a partial victory even as the court fight continues, noting that more than 1,700 city workers have submitted proof of vaccination since the mandate was announced. More than 95 percent of the city’s roughly 19,000-person workforce has been vaccinated.
Even among the three public safety unions that challenged Wu’s mandate in court, nearly all members have been inoculated, underscoring the degree to which the fight has been less about the vaccine than about establishing a power dynamic with the new mayor. Look no further than the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association’s vote last month on a proposed agreement on vaccination policy with the city. Nearly 90 percent of the roughly 900 members who voted shot it down — even though most members are vaccinated and stood to gain mental health and wellness days from the deal.
“It wasn’t a vaccine issue, it wasn’t a mandate issue, it was a binding arbitration issue that we had,” John Soares, president of the firefighters union, said of that group’s conflict with Wu. Soares said it was important for union leadership to set a tone with the new administration: “If we had given that up there, we could have been walked on all the way through.”
Indeed, the union negotiations over the vaccine mandate are just a prelude to larger dramas to come, as the city prepares to renegotiate major union contracts. Some of the most contentious sessions are likely to come with police unions, since Wu intends to use the bargaining process to enact change in the scandal-plagued department. Wu has called for limiting the police department’s spending on overtime pay, and also pushed for greater transparency and public accountability when officers use force, proposals that gained widespread public support in the wake of the 2020 murder of George Floyd.
“That’s going to be the battle royale,” predicted Joyce Ferriabough Bolling, a veteran political strategist. But she expressed confidence in Wu: “She’s going to stand her ground.”
Such fights are a rite of passage for Boston mayors. Public safety unions have historically enjoyed great public sympathy, and they wield significant power in contract negotiations because they can lean on binding arbitration, a path that has historically proven favorable to them. Over the decades, they have demonstrated their willingness to come out in force against mayors they oppose.
Hundreds of police union members picketed former mayor Kevin H. White’s 1972 inauguration, demanding higher pay. It took a four-year standoff and a substantial raise before Thomas M. Menino’s administration could persuade the firefighters union to agree to random drug and alcohol testing — even after two firefighters died in a 2007 blaze, one with traces of cocaine in his system and the other with a blood-alcohol content more than three times above the legal limit. During one particularly bitter contract dispute, a firefighter reportedly spat on the mayor’s wife, Angela Menino.
Even Martin J. Walsh, whose role as a union leader fueled his rise in Boston politics, saw his administration sued by the firefighters union.
Mike Ross, a former Boston City Council president who helped facilitate a 2010 deal between the city and firefighters union, said, “It’s nothing new for the public safety unions to use all sorts of tactics, fair and unfair, against the mayor of the city of Boston.”
But there is a new dynamic under Wu, he suggested. Wu was not the candidate of the public safety unions, endorsements and campaign contributions show. But she won a landslide victory anyway, a potential sign that their influence is waning.
“The fact that Mayor Wu does not rely on the public safety unions to reelect her is a very strong card that she holds — a card that wasn’t necessarily held by her predecessors,” Ross said. It positions her to deal with the old power structure in a new way, he added. “Where her predecessors might be more bluster, I believe Mayor Wu is going to be more intellectual.”
Union leaders said they hope the vaccine fight hasn’t soured their relationship with the new administration. After all, labor management issues “are never gonna end,” Soares said. “I think Fred Flintstone had it.”
Even as her administration slogged through marathon bargaining sessions, Wu said it has been crucial to stay focused on the rest of her agenda. She faced a quicker-than-usual transition, assuming office just two weeks after winning the election, and immediately made clear she would run the city differently. Initially, Wu said she would start counting her 100 days in January, when most mayors start their terms. But her administration changed course and marked it last week, calling it a celebration of how much has already been accomplished.
“Whether it was an ideal situation or not, we have gotten this head start in our administration, and we’ve worked every single day to make these early days count,” Wu said.
In January, Wu led the city through a major snowstorm, earning largely positive reviews. Her administration moved more than 150 people living at a homeless encampment in the area of the city known as Mass. and Cass into transitional housing, and cleared the area — an accomplishment that eluded both Walsh and Acting Mayor Kim Janey, despite their efforts in the area — though drug use, vandalism, and vagrancy persist. Wu has expanded fare-free bus routes, pledged tens of millions of dollars to improve public housing, pumped the brakes on much-debated plans for a skyscraper on the edge of Boston Harbor, launched searches for a new police commissioner and school superintendent, and divested city funds from fossil fuels.
“I don’t know of a promise she made that she hasn’t already started the conversation on, hired someone for, or completed,” said state Senator Lydia Edwards, a Wu ally.
This past week alone, Wu created new offices for early childhood and urban agriculture, though it remains to be seen what fruit these new bureaucratic enterprises will bear. Her pace and progress will depend on her ability to balance Boston’s traditions with her new priorities.
“This is Boston. That is the ethos of our city. There’s so much history here and it’s a treasure,” Wu said. But it’s also “a double-edged sword” — “being so connected to the legacy, and making sure we continue to build on it and don’t just hold on to how things have always been.”