Marty Walsh Takes Up A Battle On The Wrong Turf

One of my rules of thumb for campaign analysis is that whoever’s turf the battle is being fought on is probably the one getting the advantage. If one campaign wants the election to be about foreign policy, then any big campaign flare-up about foreign policy is usually good for that campaign—regardless of which side seems to be getting the better of the particular exchange.

It feels to me like Marty Walsh has flown in the face of this rule of thumb Saturday, by picking a fight with John Connolly over the arbitrator’s award to the Boston Police Patrolman’s Association (BPPA). One of the major concerns many voters have about Walsh is that his close relationship to unions could make him soft in negotiations with labor. This is not the turf he should want to be fighting on.

Both mayoral candidates released vague statements about the arbitrator’s award Friday; it was Walsh who came out strong Saturday morning. In a sharply worded statement, he said that the award is far too generous, and the city can’t afford it; he blamed Mayor Tom Menino for letting the negotiations go to binding arbitration; and called on both sides to go back to the negotiating table.

That kind of seemed like over-compensation to some, including me. It also sounded kind of ridiculous. Walsh is calling on the BPPA to voluntarily walk away from an awarded contract, in order to negotiate something better for the city—which is to say, worse for the union. In a million years I cannot imagine BPPA President Tommy Nee saying my word, yes, this contract we’ve been awarded, although significantly lower than what we demanded, is nevertheless far too generous—let’s tear it up and see if we can come up with some smaller raises for my members.

Connolly—who says he’ll take meetings over the next couple of days to discuss the contract details before deciding whether to vote yea or nay on it in the city council—held a press conference Saturday afternoon to hit Walsh for his posturing earlier in the day. And he added fuel to the fire, by pointing out that Marty has been a leading proponent of more binding arbitration for these types of situations.

The campaign notes that Marty Walsh filed a bill this January, H.2467, titled “An Act providing for binding arbitration for firefighters and police officers.” That legislation—which Walsh has been pushing for years, unsuccessfully, on behalf of those unions—would make it more likely that these kinds of situations would go to binding arbitration, in municipalities all over the Commonwealth. Now, he’s seems to be saying that as mayor he would do everything to avoid going to arbitration—but his own bill would diminish a mayor’s power to do that. He’s also saying that the parties should walk away from the award resulting from binding arbitration, a notion undreamt of in his legislative philosophy.

Connolly, in a statement, called Walsh’s statement on the BPPA award “a stunning turnaround” from the purpose of that bill, and “an example of his actions not backing up his words when it comes to negotiating with labor unions.”

In a return-volley statement, Walsh claimed that his bill somehow actually supports his current position:

The facts are clear about the impact of the legislation I’ve filed — the first two requirements are the ability of the city or town to meet the costs of any arbitration decision and that the decision is in the interests and welfare of the public.  I believe yesterday’s arbitration decision does not meet either of those criteria, which is why I called for the Mayor and the BPPA to return to the bargaining table…

If I understand correctly, Walsh is saying that his bill somehow provides for overruling the arbitrators if the arbitration award fails to meet defined criteria. If that’s his argument, it appears, on its face, to be a wild misinterpretation of the legislation. Those two criteria—ability of the municipality to meet the costs, and the interests and welfare of the public—are “factors among others, to be given weight by the arbitration panel… in arriving at the decision.” They are not factors to be determined in whether the parties should then accept the arbitrators’ decision once it’s made. I mean, I don’t mean to be patronizing to a guy who obviously knows a lot about unions, but the whole point of binding arbitration is to assign someone to weigh those criteria when the negotiating parties can’t do it themselves.

In fact, quite to the contrary, Walsh’s bill would, very importantly, remove the possibility of overruling a costly or public-endangering arbitration award.

That’s because the bill would make the award binding not only on the two parties—in this case, the mayor and the BPPA—but also on the municipal legislator, i.e. the Boston City Council:

…a majority of the panel, or the single arbitrator, shall select [] the last and best arbitration award…. The selection shall be final and binding upon the parties and upon the appropriate legislative body.

As it stands now, the council can choose to vote against authorizing the funding for the contract. That is the lone existing stopgap. That threat is precisely what forced the firefighters union to give back a significant amount, at this exact point in the process a couple of years ago. If you are hoping for the city to gain concessions back this time, the option Walsh’s bill would take away is your only weapon—not some naive call for the BPPA to listen to its better angels.

None of this, by the way, means that Walsh would necessarily be worse than Connolly at negotiating labor contracts for the city as its mayor.

What it does mean, though, is that politically he seems to be battling on the wrong turf.