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The rabble that regularly assembles outside Mayor Wu’s house in Roslindale, exercising their First Amendment right to be obnoxious, has done nothing to advance their argument that they should not be fired for refusing to be vaccinated against COVID.
But you could argue their belligerent, and in some cases reprehensible, actions have made others challenging the city’s mandate appear far more reasonable.
While the bulk of public opinion seems to be aligned against them, the municipal unions who oppose the vaccine mandate being used as grounds to terminate its members are not without influential allies. Last week, the City Council ordered a hearing on the Wu administration’s mandate and how it affects the collective bargaining agreements with municipal workers.
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City Councilor Erin Murphy called for the hearing, noting that Wu’s policy had nixed the negotiated agreement that her predecessor, Kim Janey, reached with the unions that gave members the choice of being vaccinated or undergo regular testing. That policy, Murphy said, should be “collectively bargained before any changes to work conditions go into place.”
Murphy, who was a Boston Public Schools teacher for 22 years, believes everyone should be vaccinated. But she contends the vaccine mandate should be negotiated, not unilaterally imposed.
Councilor Frank Baker suggested the dispute is not about the wisdom of getting vaccinated, but about process and transparency.
That all council members consider themselves pro-union shows how the response to the pandemic has created conflict and contradictions among even traditional allies.
Councilor Ricardo Arroyo captured that fact by noting that although he comes from a big union family where his mother and sisters are members of the Boston Teachers Union, he supports the vaccine mandate because considerations for public health must take precedence.
Council president Ed Flynn, whose South Boston home attracted protesters after he criticized those who shouted hateful rhetoric outside Wu’s house, assigned the hearing to the City Services and Innovation Technology Committee. The committee chair, Councilor Kenzie Bok, scheduled a hearing for Friday at 10 a.m.
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The hearing will be held remotely. Two weeks ago, Flynn shut down a council meeting after protesters refused to don masks inside the council chambers.
Union leaders, meanwhile, are trying to project a more rational, reasonable opposition, resting their case on years of established labor law, and by insisting that regular testing is a viable alternative to vaccination because even those who are vaccinated have contracted COVID.
The unions believe they’ll get a fairer hearing in the council, and in court, where the firefighters Local 718 and the police unions representing superior officers and detectives have filed suit challenging the mandate, than in the court of public opinion.
That’s not surprising, as support for unions has plummeted over the last half century, even in supposedly union-friendly places like Boston.
Ed Kelly, a former Local 718 president who is now general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, notes the unions are not protesting outside the mayor’s house, and insists the unions are not anti-mandate or anti-vaccine, simply pro-labor. He contends the previously negotiated agreement can’t be unilaterally replaced by the mayor.
“Collective bargaining law requires that both the city and the unions come to an agreement on changes, particularly those that result in the termination of members in good standing,” Kelly said. “The union is not asking for any extra pay or days off. They just want the agreement that was made between the union and the city to be upheld or renegotiated in good faith.”
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Kelly says the mayor’s policy is not data driven, that the vaccine/testing option was working, that about 95 percent of first responders are vaccinated, and there have not been any documented cases of first responders spreading COVID on the job.
“Even when we did not have proper PPE or the option for a vaccine, Boston’s firefighters, police officers, and EMS answered the call,” Kelly said. “Many contracted the virus, in doing so. Terminating those that diligently carried out their duties at the height of the pandemic is just plain wrong.”
Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at kevin.cullen@globe.com.
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