A Governor for Dictatorial Times
Lincoln Chafee’s time as Warwick mayor ended before I’d taken much of an interest in Rhode Island politics, so I’d never had occasion to learn about his much touted resolution of a teacher dispute and strike in the city. The details in a recent PolitiFact article suggest that he might be more than comfortable with a role of governor in a time of state centralization of power:
In spring 1994, after talks broke down and the state mediator resigned in frustration, Chafee stepped in and cut a deal with the teachers, essentially bypassing the School Committee.
Under the agreement, backed by eight of the nine members of the Democrat-controlled City Council, base pay for a top-step teacher went from $39,762 during the 1990-1991 school year to $49,371 for 1996-’97, the final year of the pact. That’s a 24.2-percent hike. The deal also included an extra 2.5 percent that teachers who were working during the 1992-’93 school year are entitled to receive when they retire or resign, a bonus that continues to be paid as teachers leave.
The question that the article addresses — leading to a “half true” rating for Chafee’s Democrat opponent for governor, Frank Caprio — is whether Chafee can really be faulted for giving the teachers such a huge raise. The context that writer Eugene Emery finds compelling in Chafee’s favor is that the total amount can be seen as spreading out over the course of the six years that the dispute continued.
Only in public sector labor disputes is it considered natural for wage increases to be counted over years of negotiation. Most workers who receive raises after long stretches of stasis don’t see them as distributed across the years from one increase to another. Indeed, that mentality — the inevitability of retroactive pay — surely underlies the union’s willingness to drag the process out for so long… until it could find some official party to acquiesce and make its members whole.
In this case, it appears that the voters of Warwick were not interested in replacing their school committee with representatives who would acquiesce to the union, and they had no reason to suspect that their votes for mayor would achieve the same result.