All is oddly quiet on Boston labor front

Hard times causing city’s unions to pause at combative tactics

By Andrew Ryan
Globe Staff / August 20, 2011

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When negotiations stall, Boston teachers almost always take their fights public, threatening to strike, refusing to work past the dismissal bell, and marching by the thousands on City Hall Plaza.

But now, even as teachers start a second school year without a new contract, there have been no picket signs or pressure tactics. Fear of a second recession and recent political defeats have forced organized labor to rethink its strategy as all of Boston’s 42 unions negotiate new contracts.

“The tone is very different; usually [an] adversarial component kicks in earlier,’’ said Deputy Superintendent Michael Goar, the lead negotiator for Boston Public Schools. “If we were able to settle this contract by [last] March, they would have done something, whether it be a strike vote or other kind of drastic step.’’

That new, more conciliatory approach has so far not been matched by concessions at the bargaining table. Despite 17 months of talks, teachers and school administrators have made limited progress and remain far apart on major issues such as a push to base pay on performance rather than seniority. That has frustrated advocates for education changes who want to use the contract to seek their goals.

The implications of that shift go well beyond the schools. As the city’s largest bargaining unit, the teachers’ union helps set patterns for other negotiations, establishing a base line for how much the city is willing to give at the bargaining table.

“When a lot of people are worried about their jobs or out of jobs, they have a lot less sympathy for public sector workers who are asking for pay increases,’’ said Kevin Lang, an economics professor at Boston University.

As the economy sputters, unions across the country have seen their power diminish. The highest profile battle played out in Wisconsin, where public employees’ unions lost most of their collective bargaining rights despite massive protests.

Even in labor-friendly Massachusetts, lawmakers earlier this year curbed the collective bargaining rights of teachers, firefighters, and other municipal employees, in an effort to save $100 million in health insurance costs for cities and towns.

Those setbacks have shifted the dynamics for union leaders who in the past made their point with a megaphone on a picket line. Boston teachers, for example, threatened to strike in winter 2004 and again in 2007, both times after working a half school year without a contract. But not this time, as negotiations stretch into a second school year.

“There definitely is a different tone,’’ said Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union. “But I’m not sure it’s because of Wisconsin or anything like that. I think the economy has cast a pall over everything.’’

In Boston, all city unions agreed in the spring to pay a larger share of health insurance premiums. And union officials are quick to point out that Boston weathered the recession better than most big cities. But each plunge in the stock market fuels economic uncertainty and strengthens the city’s hand at the bargaining table, a reality that most union leaders recognize.

“In general, I think that labor needs to be very smart on how and when we take things public,’’ said Jennifer Springer of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, which represents 2,500 city workers. “We need to be strategic now more than ever.’’

One exception may be Boston’s school bus drivers, who have taken their contract fight public. United Steelworkers of America Local 8751 threatened to strike and disrupt transportation for summer school. A temporary accord averted a work stoppage, but another deadline looms when the regular school year starts in September.

Outside factors have also slowed the pace of talks for other city unions. Talks with police unions, for example, are unlikely to make significant progress until the Supreme Judicial Court rules on a case scheduled for arguments this October. The case could force the city to pay officers millions more for the Quinn bill, an education incentive program cut by the state.

For teachers in particular, negotiators waited for the outcome of state health insurance changes, as well as new regulations from the state Department of Education. The union may also be wary of mentioning a work stoppage because in 2007 a judge levied a $30,000 fine after teachers threatened to strike.

Advocates pushing for change in the teachers’ contract have been frustrated by the union and city officials. Last December, Mayor Thomas M. Menino used a major speech to make specific demands of the union, but progress has been slow and the talks received little attention.

“It’s not moving fast enough, and we’re concerned it’s not going far enough,’’ said Samuel R. Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, which has been lobbying for changes in the contract. “What this city can’t afford is another contract that just [brings] small, incremental change.’’

School negotiators have a series of daylong bargaining sessions scheduled for the next few weeks. One major sticking point is a push to dramatically change how teachers are paid. School administrators want to scrap the pay scale that promises automatic annual raises. For all new teachers, administers want pay increases to be tied to test scores, classroom observation, and parent and student feedback.

“In one profession after another, you get paid for experience,’’ Stutman counters, adding that the union has yet to see specifics for the proposed wage scale. “The School Department should be no different.’’

Administrators are also pushing for a longer school day that would include 30 minutes additional time in the classroom and 30 minutes more for teacher planning and professional development. The union has agreed to the extra time, Stutman said, but they want to be paid for it.

The union’s positions are not new, and some critics argue that they could impede needed change that has been enacted at the federal and state level.

“The existing contract has really been deemed a barrier for what needs to be done for the predominantly low-income, minority population of the Boston public schools,’’ said Paul S. Grogan, who leads the Boston Foundation. “There’s this tectonic shift that wants to happen, needs to happen.’’

Andrew Ryan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeAndrewRyan.