Selectmen, Unions at Impasse Over Coalition Bargaining
The two sides could not see eye to eye over the concept, which combines all unions in a town into one collective bargaining force known as a Public Employee Committee.
In a packed house on what was a packed Tuesday night meeting, the Westford Board of Selectmen opened proceedings by letting town public employee union leaders know that they are uninterested in undertaking the process known as coalition bargaining.
The process, found in Massachusetts General Law Chapter 32B Section 19, creates what is known as a Public Employee Committee or a PEC, a collective bargaining body for healthcare benefit negotiations with representatives from multiple municipal unions as well as representatives of retired municipal workers.
Proponents of PECs claim that the ability for public workers to establish them helps reduce municipal healthcare costs since towns can buy their coverage in bulk, reducing risk pools for insurers.
Since the concept was established, dozens of towns throughout the Commonwealth have adopted PECs and many cite that it has saved significant sums of money for municipalities, most recently from earlier in the day with Gloucester’s PEC approved a plan that would save the municipality nearly $500,000 on health insurance.
Meanwhile, opponents of the concept claim that the idea can often be inflexible given the different needs of different municipal unions within a town, due in large part to the law requiring 70 percent of public employees to ratify new agreements or changes to agreements before they can become implemented.
The clash between these proponents and opponents in Westford was on full display as Westford Education Association Ruth Freeman recommended to Board of Selectmen chairman Robert Jefferies that the town should engage in coalition bargaining following negotiations which had extended from late last year and had not yet produced a new agreement.
Jeffries replied the board would not be interested in beginning the process in town for fear of putting all of the power into the largest unions at the expense of smaller municipal employee unions, and that in the past the board had negotiated with individual unions informally.
“We do not have an interest in adopting Section 19 because we think that all unions should be a part of this, and that it should be a consensus and it shouldn’t be ruled by the largest union,” said Jeffries during the meeting. “
Freeman and Westford Firefighters Union president David Greenwood noted that all town unions except for the Communication Workers of America Local 1051 wished to support the coalition bargaining concept, but they were not surprised at the outcome of the meeting and hope that both sides can continue to work towards an agreement.
“We were really looking forward to at least just having another meeting with them and actually talk about the options,” said Greenwood. “We didn’t even get the chance to talk about the options, it doesn’t sound like that want to do that at this time, hopefully they want to do that down the road and we’re willing to talk about it at any time.”
According to Greenwood, all current municipal labor agreements in Westford expire on July 1, and following the meeting, all subsequent negotiations are expected to be held in public.
In regards to the teachers' union, the Selectmen serve in an advisory role to the School Committee.