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Michelle Wu promised ‘significant reform’ to police union contracts. Now comes the hard part.

Mayor Michelle Wu’s priorities include reducing “union release time,” when the city pays officers to attend collective bargaining and grievance sessions, and tightening the medical leave policy.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

It’s a feat that eluded her predecessors.

Michelle Wu swept into office in 2021 promising to do what no Boston mayor has done in decades: force major reforms upon the change-resistant, scandal-scarred Boston Police Department, and make them last by negotiating sweeping change into new police union contracts.

But as Wu begins the second year of her first term, it’s becoming clear just how difficult that will be. The city’s largest police union is already trying to push contract talks off the bargaining table and into the hands of outside arbitrators, a move that has historically favored the unions. And police unions, no fans of Wu to begin with, are standing characteristically firm in their positions, as unwilling as ever to grant major concessions without getting something big back from the city.

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In short, history is not on Wu’s side. But the narrative could change.

The new mayor may have some advantages her predecessors did not. For one: The public is increasingly skeptical of the police, in the wake of local overtime scandals and increased attention across the country to officers’ violence and misconduct. When it comes to law enforcement, the social climate has turned intolerant of the status quo.

“Where we are is just a different time,” Wu’s new labor czar, Lou Mandarini, said in an interview Friday.

“We’re at a moment where fundamental conversations are happening for the first time ever about what is the nature of policing, what is the nature of the police force that we want to have in Boston in 2022,” said Mandarini, who spent years as an attorney for labor unions before coming to City Hall last year. “The world is watching. Everyone is watching.”

Also watching, of course, is the union leadership. They are braced for a collision.

“We do not want to be Seattle, New York City, Minnesota, or any other community where crime and violent crime continues to spiral out of control,” Larry Calderone, president of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, said in a phone interview. “If that’s their idea of change then the BPPA does not want to be a part of hurting the general public.”

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The union, he said, is “not concerned with the optics or the politics of City Hall as it relates to the mayor’s promises on her campaign.... We’re concerned about making one of the nation’s best police departments even better.”

So far, there is little evidence of compromise. And so, these contract negotiations will represent perhaps the most significant test yet of Wu’s mettle and political savvy, and her core pitch that she would be a transformative mayor. The results will demonstrate whether she can win fights that past mayors could not and make good on the ambitious campaign promises that won her this office.

Making change in police union contracts is “a Herculean task,” said Jamarhl Crawford, a longtime police reform activist in Boston. “If we said, ‘We have found a cure for cancer, we have found a cure for violence, but every cop will have to take a pay cut of 1 penny per week,’ you know they’ll fight you in the streets over that penny,” Crawford said.

“To tangle with the union stuff at that level, you need to have the brain of Johnnie Cochran but you need to punch like Mike Tyson.”

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The collective bargaining process, those familiar with its intricate rules and methods say, is set up to achieve incremental change, or no real change at all — not sweeping reform. And once the contracts land in the hands of outside arbitrators, the unions tend to fare better than management, according to interviews with more than a dozen attorneys, advocates, and experts who have been involved with past contract negotiations.

Wu has said the city won’t sign a contract that doesn’t include “significant reform.” But making change through the contracts “is exceptionally difficult, as police unions essentially have veto power over changes in discipline and other accountability measures,” said Geoffrey C. Beckwith, executive director of Massachusetts Municipal Association. Existing contract language stays in place until a new version is inked, he explained, which generally means no change happens until the union says so.

But if the shifting political climate nationally may benefit Wu’s cause, so too may politics more locally. The Boston City Council looks more likely than any before it to vote down the union’s contract if the agreement doesn’t incorporate significant changes. The current council is stacked with new, progressive members who cast themselves as reformers, and have already demonstrated their willingness to cut funding for the police department. If arbitrators get involved and decide to tilt the union’s way, the council refusing to fund a contract would be the only backstop available to Wu and the city.

In years past, council approval has been little more than a formality. But “this is not Dapper O’Neil’s City Council any longer,” said Tom Nolan, a former Boston police lieutenant, referring to the truculent, socially conservative Irish councilor who served until 1999.

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“This is not a city council that will rubber stamp anything that involves expenditures relating to police,” added Nolan, who, as a union leader, helped negotiate the Boston Police Superior Officers Federation contract in the early 2000s. “The pendulum has swung. For the first time in my memory, the support is for the mayor and for City Hall, and not for the [Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association].”

Public opinion, and council ideology, could drastically shift the power dynamic underpinning the negotiations. Councilors themselves have acknowledged the tremendous influence they possess, and said they intend to wield it. Just seven of 13 councilors could block the contract and force further negotiations.

City Councilor Kenzie Bok said she takes the council’s role in the process “extremely seriously.”

“Many of us on the council have been really clear that we need to see a reform contract to fund it,” she said.

Wu’s priorities for the new contract include limiting overtime by reducing so-called “union release time,” when the city pays officers to attend collective bargaining and grievance sessions, and tightening the medical leave policy so that fewer officers are out for long periods of time.

Perhaps the biggest challenge would be strengthening the disciplinary process for officer misconduct. Mandarini said the city is seeking reforms “making it easier to get rid of those officers that don’t act in conformance with the trust” placed in the department. But he would not say specifically how the city proposes to do that. Firing officers, even those who engaged in serious misconduct, is notoriously difficult, since union leaders have often gotten those decisions overturned in arbitration.

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The union, meanwhile, is pushing to boost wages; relax the residency requirement mandating that all officers live in the city for at least a decade; reduce the number of days officers are expected to work in a row; and increase financial incentives for officers to pursue higher education so that the raises are consistent across the department.

While Mandarini still sees “a lot of opportunity to move,” the union insists talks have stalled. To Calderone, that makes arbitration the next logical step in the contract dispute.

“Collective bargaining is a negotiation between both parties and that’s a fair give and take,” Calderone said. “If it can’t be done by the parties at the table, who better than an independent third party to help with this decision making?”

Now, the disagreement heads to the Joint Labor-Management Committee, a state department that will determine whether the talks have come to an impasse. If the JLMC says they have, the city and the union will move toward arbitration, where they will list their issues of contention, present testimony, and argue in support of their positions. That protracted process means it will be months, if not years, before any arbitration agreement lands before the council.

The City Council has waded into a public safety union contract fight just once in recent memory, said longtime observers of the city’s bargaining process.

In 2010, after a bitter, four-year standoff, arbitrators ruled that Boston firefighters had to submit to random drug and alcohol testing in exchange for a 19 percent raise over four years, a significant bump that at the time dwarfed pay increases for other city unions. The city had pushed for testing in the wake of a 2007 fire when two firefighters died, one with cocaine in his system and the other with a blood-alcohol level more than three times the legal limit.

Then-City Council President Mike Ross — appalled at the prospect of giving firefighters hefty raises just “to come to work sober” — threatened to reject the contract, a prospect that helped push the city and the union back to the negotiating table. Ultimately they agreed upon a five-year contract that included the drug testing along with more modest raises.

The current council could lay down the same threat, and “that gives both sides an impetus to try to get to an agreement,” Ross said in an interview.

The political landscape has shifted significantly since his time in City Hall, he added. “Michelle Wu has a lot of political capital, and a lot of momentum, and I think she’s in a strong bargaining position,” particularly with the council’s potential role “as a strong backstop.”

This moment, then, could be the Wu administration’s chance to prove it can succeed where others have failed. The JLMC process may have looked better for unions in past years, but it might not always be that way, analysts said. In any city, when legislative bodies like the council are prepared to reject unsatisfying contracts, the momentum shifts toward enabling the government to ink more advantageous deals, said John Clifford, a municipal labor attorney who formerly served on the JLMC.

“Where the city has gotten bad awards,” Clifford said, “it’s in cases where the City Council has not done their job.”


Emma Platoff can be reached at emma.platoff@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emmaplatoff. Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.