Boston councilors hear from frustrated unions, but few Wu officials on vax mandate


“We’re looking for a partnership and we just get, ‘It’s our way or the highway.'”

Lane Turner / Globe Staff

Chris Stockbridge put it bluntly: “None of us are anti-vaccine.”

Stockbridge, co-chairman of AFSCME Council 93 in Boston, often nicknamed “Tiger”, received the COVID-19 vaccine and a booster shot.

It was his choice. He had lived through some of the most grueling and painful consequences of the pandemic: he lost his mother to the virus.

Six days later, his brother was in a coma with COVID at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Brighton, he said.

“The last thing I want on my conscience is that I made someone sick,” Stockbridge said Friday, while testifying virtually before a Boston City Council committee on behalf of his union, representing the city’s civilian police and firefighters, mechanics, janitors, and office workers.

Many of these union colleagues are also vaccinated.

And so the rebuke to Mayor Michelle Wu’s policy that all city employees must be vaccinated against COVID-19, Stockbridge said, is simple: that a pandemic cannot be the reason for waiving rights. collective bargaining.

“We’re looking for a partnership and we just get, ‘It’s our way or the highway,'” Stockbridge said. “And that’s just unacceptable.”

Few details on social negotiations could be offered.

Stockbridge’s argument, along with his frustration and confusion over what has ensued since Wu unveiled the policy in December, was a common argument advisers heard on Friday.

The Municipal Services and Technology Innovation Board held the hearing to discuss the details of a mandate-related memorandum of understanding for the City’s employee unions.

Some councilors have pushed for public health metrics that protect employees’ envisioned tenure, alongside city policy that requires vaccination to enter certain indoor spaces.

“I want to know who was in the room when we decided to take rights away from business owners, take away rights from our workforce,” said Councilman Frank Baker, a vocal critic of the two policies that think the advisers have been kept in the dark.

At one point, Baker, after hearing from a senior city health official, accused Wu of making decisions based on politics, not science.

The administration, he said, “refuses to have a conversation here.”

“As the city has done since the start of the pandemic, our top priority is keeping our residents safe,” a city spokesperson told in an emailed statement. Friday afternoon. “We will continue to work with the Boston Public Health Commission to protect the health of all Boston residents, including city employees.”

During Friday’s hearing, councilors and the public were given little, if any, insight into the Wu administration’s approach to ongoing labor negotiations.

Under the city charter, councilors cannot enter into contracts with government officials. Councilors were therefore unable to engage in dialogue with union representatives and only offered statements instead.

Similarly, the director of the city’s Labor Relations Office was not present at the hearing, due to ongoing labor negotiations.

The only Wu administration representative present was Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, the city’s public health commissioner, who could only speak about pandemic conditions in Boston, not labor relations issues.

Still, Ojikutu defended the administration’s actions and said she believed both policies “were necessary” to prevent the spread of COVID, serious illness and death.

“I believe this is consistent with our authority to protect the health and welfare of the public and our workforce,” she said.

Asked about the city’s vaccination rates since the mandate was announced, Ojikutu said there had been a 17% increase in vaccinations in the first week and a half of the indoor vaccination policy towards on January 18, although this measure is citywide and not limited to the city’s workforce.

Ojikutu said the city is working on a survey people can take at their first appointment for a vaccine dose about what motivated them to get vaccinated.

“It’s obviously in our interest to know what drives people to get vaccinated,” she said. “But we have seen this increase.”

The city’s public workforce is, overall, vaccinated: Officials said about 95% of city employees have received the vaccine, with many departments reporting rates above 90%.

Generally speaking, Ojikutu said she was “optimistic” about the city’s current situation in the health crisis. Boston could fall below key metric thresholds set by Wu as requirements to drop the indoor vaccination mandate in “coming weeks,” Ojikutu said.

Describing those standards — hospital bed occupancy, daily hospitalizations and the city’s positivity rate — was central to Ojikutu’s testimony.

“We spend a lot of time thinking about the data behind the decisions and behind the advice that we’ve provided to this administration,” she told Baker.

The unions want the council’s support.

The hearing came as Wu’s policy was, at least temporarily, stymied by a Massachusetts Court of Appeals judge who last month ordered a temporary suspension of the warrant amid a challenge court of three of the city’s first responder unions.

Several worker groups representing the city’s public workforce have accused Wu’s administration of encroaching on collective bargaining rights, reneging on the city’s previous policy that unvaccinated workers should be regularly tested. for the virus instead of losing their jobs.

The change, announced in December, came without conversation, union leaders said on Friday. And many unions have made little or no progress in finding some sort of common ground, they said.

Some implored city councilors to publicly side with the unions.

“To date, all of our attempts to resolve the labor dispute have stalled. We spent days and long hours at Parkman House, working in tandem with our union colleagues,” John Soares, president of Boston Fire Department Local 718, said Friday. “Whenever we make a proposal…to the Wu administration’s proposal, the city just ignores us.”

Wu said Sunday his administration met with police and fire unions last Friday for nine hours but was unable to reach an agreement.

During those talks, Wu proposed a policy that the groups rejected that would prevent unvaccinated current employees from being fired, but it would also have required them to be tested twice a week.

Under this version of the rule, unvaccinated employees would have to take unpaid administrative leave if the pandemic worsens again to certain levels of surge.

Further talks with several unions, including Local 718, were stalled earlier this week when administration officials canceled a meeting, several union leaders said in a letter to Wu on Wednesday.

Elissa Cadillic, president of Boston Public Library Employees’ Union Local 1526, opposed the mandate to the city’s current library rules, which allow patrons to enter regardless of their vaccination status.

Why should city employees be held to a different standard than the public they serve, she asked.

Like other labor groups, the Cadillic union has not received adequate responses from the city for the Cadillic union, Cadillic said. Representatives were unable to give “concrete reasons” behind the policy change and were unable to provide data on COVID cases among unvaccinated employees, she said. .

According to Cadillic, the Office of Human Resources shared the names and email addresses of city employees who tested positive and were not vaccinated, violating their privacy and an agreement reached in October.

“The city expects us to meet with them and is confident that they will honor mutually negotiated agreements now and in the future,” Cadillic said. “How can we do this when that trust has been eroded?”

Wu’s administration has so far managed to break through with just one group of workers.

On Thursday, Wu announced that the city had reached an agreement with the Boston Teacher’s Union.

The agreement, which still requires school committee approval, allows unvaccinated school staff to submit two negative COVID tests per week when transmission of the virus is considered low. But when transmission increases, those staff members cannot enter school buildings and can take accrued leave instead of unpaid leave.

Councilwoman Erin Murphy, who convened Friday’s hearing, asked Ojikutu how the city plans to handle a potentially rapid change in the school workforce if the virus is ever-changing.

The data is released as seven-day averages, which means changes like the one highlighted by Murphy would be planned, not on the fly, according to Ojikutu.

Council Speaker Ed Flynn said despite the “difficult times” the city is facing, he still believes there could be a compromise if all parties return to the bargaining table.

As the sun set later Friday afternoon, a crowd of Local 718 members parade across City Hall Square, demanding action and carrying signs.

On one, bold letters proclaimed: “Mayor Wu is burning firefighters.”


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