Woonsocket Commission passes plan to force union concessions

Woonsocket Commission passes plan to force union concessions

WOONSOCKET – Saying negotiations with collective bargaining units is "not going well," the Woonsocket Budget Commission passed several resolutions Friday in attempt to force the unions to accept the terms of a five-year plan they've devised to save the city from insolvency.

The state-appointed board voted unanimously to make revised contracts with teachers, support employees, police and other unions take effect on July 1, 2013.

"Whereas, Woonsocket Teachers Guild, Local 951, American Federation of Teachers has declined and refused on behalf of teachers and paraprofessionals to agree to those terms that would permit the city to end its current fiscal crisis or to accomplish the goals and objectives of the five year plan as prescribed by law," one resolution begins, "the following terms and conditions shall prevail." Many of the conditions listed apply to health care benefits, a major component of the plan expected to save the city $6 million in 2014.

The action comes after months of closed-door meetings aimed at negotiating one element of the plan to resolve to the city’s fiscal crisis. Woonsocket’s structural deficit nearly closed schools a month early last year, and without change, is projected to grow to $90 million by 2017. But plans to address the growing deficit with tax increases, adjustments to the time frame in which the city must pay back its debt burden, and reduction in services, all hinge on the commission’s ability to reach a deal with union groups. The five-year plan calls for an additional $2.4 million in savings this year from such contract changes.

At least one union representative said he's still hopeful an agreement can be reached.

"We are willing to negotiate an agreement," said John Burns of Council 94 AFSCME, AFL-CIO. "I wanted to say that for the record."

The gesture may have been largely symbolic, as it is unclear if the commission has the authority to impose the terms.

"That's an issue that will end up before a Superior Court judge," said City Council member Albert Brien, who was present for the Friday morning vote.

Finance Director Thomas Bruce said he believes it is likely that a union representative will seek a restraining order to block the resolutions.

“It is possible that the judge will rule in favor of the unions,” Bruce said.

Still, with five of the six contracts already expired and what Bruce described as a "general consensus" among state authorities that the Commission has already done much of the legwork that would be preformed by a receiver - the next stage of state intervention if the board fails to resolve the city's fiscal woes - the resolutions could hold ground.

If not, Bruce said, he believes state Finance Director Rosemary Booth Gallogly would move quickly to appoint a receiver, who would have the authority to officially bring the city into bankruptcy. The contract for Local 732 IAFF - the fire fighters union - will not expire until June 30, 2014.

Read more on this breaking story in this week's edition of The Valley Breeze.