We have heard several Town Councilors tell the public that funding the arbitration award for the Local 1347 would not have been fair to other public employees. They have cited the fact that all other unions agreed to accept their predetermined parameters of no raises for two years and that the arbitration award did not meet that same criteria because of an increase in EMT / Defibrillator stipend pay.
Comparing the outcome of previously negotiated contracts to the outcome of an independent, third-party review such as arbitration is both deceptive and disrespectful. Town officials made a decision in 2009 to treat all public employee unions as one during the negotiation process. The town failed to realize that each separate labor union has a right to not accept those bargaining terms. The town took a risk in using this negotiation tactic as their sole collective bargaining strategy, and the result of this gamble is a lack of a negotiated contract for local firefighters. In my opinion, the town setting these parameters and expecting that all unions comply does not meet the definition of negotiation. Instead, this is a coercive, browbeating tactic that fails to take into account the individuality of each employee group. A “one size fits all” approach to negotiation defeats the purpose of this process as there is no room for finding middle ground. Keep in mind that the firefighters are the third employee group to picket outside of town hall in the last four years.
Town Councilors have stated that funding the arbitration award would not be fair to the other public employees that have already accepted the town directive of two years without an increase. During the December 9th heard councilors state that we should be fair to all town employees. However, I am wondering about the lack of fairness from an alternate perspective. The August 2013 Fiscal Management Review prepared by the Massachusetts Department of Revenue suggested that the town “reconsider providing insurance benefits to elected officials.” This recommendation stemmed from a state audit that referenced Massachusetts General Law (chapter 32, section 2d) specifying that paid elected officials in Watertown do not meet the definition of employee based on the number of hours per week worked.
Furthermore, the state had issued a recommendation to the town to cease allowing elected officials to become fully vested in the town’s health insurance plan. Currently an elected Town Councilor in Watertown needs only 10 years of service to become fully vested for life, while other town employees provide 30 years of public service for such benefit. As a matter of fairness, Watertown elected officials should have re-evaluated this policy with the Town Manager upon receiving the report in 2013. There is clearly a large benefit available for Town Councilors that is not available for all public employee groups. However, the town has yet to amend this policy as recommended by the Department of Revenue. Now I must ask, where is the fairness?
It also seems unreasonable that the collective Town Council continue to disregard the voices of residents that have expressed their opinion on these matters through direct communication and public forums. Once again we are witnessing residents’ requests being ignored by town officials, similar to the fashion that a request for a short-term moratorium on large developments issued as a petition was disregarded, along with petitions requesting that the town not open up public land for private cellular antenna companies to use. Each Town Councilor should be held accountable for their lack of response to residents on these matters, as they have taken the power out of the hands of their constituents.
While the door has closed on the ability of the Town Council to fund this arbitration award for the firefighters, the Town Manager should recognize the fairness of the deal and offer the exact features of the award in the form of a contract to the Local 1347 negotiation team. The only contract parameters acceptable and fair to all at this point is awarding a contract that fits the terms of the arbitration award. Asking that the firefighters accept anything other than what was deemed fair by an independent arbitrator is a disrespectful gesture to the collective bargaining process, the rights of public safety employees that are legally prohibited from an organized workplace strike, and the residents that value the perspective of a third-party review. I ask the town again, where is the fairness?