(Link to the original Somerville Times article here.)
by: Jordan Deschenes
May 17, 2017
Representatives from Somerville city unions and worker’s associations were in attendance at last week’s Board of Alderman meeting to petition for a resolution. Both groups asked for the aldermen to add their signatures to the motion, which would prohibit city negotiators from denying unions the ability to include evergreen clauses in public-sector contracts.
“I can validate the desperate need for an evergreen clause in Somerville contracts from personal experience and negotiations with the city over the last decade,” said Ed Halloran, co-chair of the Somerville Labor Coalition (SLC).
“The last round of contracts, which were expiring in June of 2006, took us over six years to reach a successful agreement with the city. That means we were operating without a main contract enforced or in effect over those six years.”
The resolution presented a need for city negotiators to accept evergreen clauses in newly negotiated collective bargaining agreements. One of the document’s main arguments for inclusion states that “except for the city of Somerville,” evergreen clauses are “almost universally accepted provisions in labor agreements in the Commonwealth.”
An evergreen clause is a provision in both private and public-sector collective bargaining agreements (CBA) that allows for the continuation of an original contract for a set period of time after its expiration, usually until a new contract is negotiated or terminated.
Evergreen clauses were legalized in Massachusetts in 2011 after then-Governor Deval Patrick signed a bill overturning a state Supreme Judicial Court ruling the year before. The 2010 court ruling had found that evergreen clauses were not permitted under statue 150e of Massachusetts Labor Relations Laws. As of today, such clauses are legal in private contracts nationwide under the National Labor Relations Act.
The aldermen unanimously signed on to the document, each submitting comments as to why they supported it. Alderman At-Large Dennis Sullivan gave the most fervent testimonial, arguing that city employees and unions should be able to “buy in good faith” by having language in place that protects both employees and employers equally.
When working without a contract, the only way for Somerville city employees to currently address contract-related issues is to file a formal grievance through a union body. According to Halloran, grievance and arbitration procedures are intended as a “peaceful means of resolving disputes” related to city contract violations.
Without the ability to file for a formal grievance procedure, city employees who are working without a contract are at risk of having basic provisions changed without their notice until a new contract is negotiated. These changes can be made to important employee rights provisions, for example, agreements regarding vacation time and pension termination.
Halloran, who is also the President of the Somerville Municipal Employees Association (SMEA), says that in recent years, unions have filed few grievances because city negotiators “routinely” dismiss evergreen proposals by unions citywide. Currently, certain businesses in the SMEA have been undergoing negotiations with the city for contracts that expired last year.
“For the past year, we have once again been in negotiations with the city for contract negotiations. Again, we are without an evergreen clause, and again, we are operating without the right to enforce our contract through arbitration,” said Halloran.
Thomas Ross, co-chair of the SLC, admitted that he was “embarrassed” to know that union representatives needed to come to the BOA to resolve the issue. Ross, who is a retired firefighter and current President of the Somerville Firefighter’s Union, revealed that unions have resorted to receiving assistance from the Department of Labor to renegotiate contracts.
“This is very simple. I’m kind of embarrassed that we have to come to the Board of Aldermen for support in a city that has been described as progressive and Democratic, and we’re coming to the point where we’re begging the Board to support this type of thing,” Ross said in his opening statements.
Ross explained that even police and firefighters’ unions are struggling to renegotiate contracts, despite the fact that a Joint Management Committee guarantees them the right to arbitration when a contract expires. He also revealed that more than one hundred labor charges have been brought against the city by the SMEA over the past five years.
Furthermore, Ross stated that in some cases, the city has threatened to refuse signing future contract agreements with unions who choose to include evergreen clauses, and that they will be considered invalid upon expiration.
“There’s a metaphorical gun pointed at some of the heads of the unions in this city right now. It’s basically saying: ‘give us your evergreen clause, or we will never sign a contract with you. You will never sign another contract, and yours will be null and void.”
Ross is hopeful that the inclusion of an evergreen clause will provide a more seamless transition from contract-to-contract that does not involve threats from the city administration. By memorializing the grievances procedures and benefits from an employee’s original contract upon expiration, unions want to resolve an ever-present barrier to fair negotiations in recent years.
“The men and women in the city unions are dedicated and hard working every day on behalf of the citizens. They do not deserve the back of the city’s hand when asking to renew contracts,” said Halloran.
Both Halloran and Ross agreed that unions would benefit their constituents most efficiently if they were able to negotiate contracts through a more seamless transition process. Furthermore, city unions hope to end the notion among city negotiators that “anything is up for grabs” with regards to the violation of contracts during renegotiation.
“This has nothing to do with money, it has to do with what’s right for the hard working employees of the city,” concluded Ross.