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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Sunday, May 19, 2024

Somerville municipal employees continue fight for fair wages

Despite a cost-of-living crisis, unionized municipal workers have not received a wage increase in nearly three years.

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Workers in the Somerville Municipal Employees Association are pictured.

Established in 1963, the Somerville Municipal Employees Association has since grown to represent more than 260 municipal workers, with bargaining units that cover everything from the Department of Public Works to the library department to school nurses. For more than 20 months, however, these vital city workers, prohibited by Massachusetts law from going on strike, have been working without a contract.

Under the previous contract, which expired in June 2022, union workers received incremental wage increases of 1–2%, roughly matching the rate of inflation. The last of such raises took effect in summer of 2021. The Daily spoke to Ed Halloran, president of the SMEA and employee of the Department of Public Works’ Highway Division, about this contract.

“What happened is that we, as the union, never really recovered [our lost wages] from the financial crisis in 2008,” he said. 

Halloran is referring to the worldwide Great Recession of the late 2000s. Similar to the economic hardship brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Great Recession brought with it heightened inflation and a cost-of-living crisis. From the onset of the recession in 2008 until 2011, SMEA wages remained completely stagnant. Halloran argues that, compounded with today’s cost-of-living crisis, the effects of the 2008 recession warrant more than a mere wage increase.

“We need a substantial salary adjustment to put us in line with [neighboring municipalities], and we need raises to keep up with inflation. … Even under our previous contract, the incremental increases … were not keeping up,” he said.

According to Halloran, Somerville’s comparatively low wages have had a tangible impact on the city’s workforce. At the height of things, he says the city was consistently shedding one to two workers per week. In one week last fall, the union lost seven members to other municipalities.

“It’s hard to raise a family, especially,” he said. “[One employee] recently had a child and he just said ‘I’ve got to go.’ So now he’s working [in the private sector] and making $34 an hour. You know, many of us just don’t have a choice.”

This mass exodus of personnel has not gone unnoticed by the city. Various city councilors have recognized the difficulties the city has faced in filling poorly compensated union jobs. As a result, some of the work formerly performed by union members has been contracted out to private companies, a practice the city recognizes is not financially sustainable.

“Contracting out work is not considered a long-term or preferred solution by the City, and every effort is underway to hire permanent employees in vacant City positions, including SMEA positions. Part of that effort includes advancing contract negotiations with the SMEA,” a city spokesperson wrote in an email to the Daily.

Although it is not out of the ordinary for contract negotiations to drag on, this bargaining process has been unusually long. According to Halloran, much of the delay can be attributed to the city’s decision to conduct a wage study. During an interview, Halloran repeatedly expressed his initial surprise at the city’s decision to commission a wage study.

A city spokesperson said Somerville and the SMEA “mutually agreed to pause negotiations to allow the City to complete its City-wide wage and compensation study.”

The study’s goal is to gather data that will allow us [to] address not just fair wages when compared to other communities/employers, but to identify internal inequities that may exist  including gender inequities, in how the City pays workers performing the same or similar work across departments and unions,” the city spokesperson wrote.

Though the full study is yet to be completed, the portions impacting the SMEA were completed late last year, and both parties returned to the bargaining table in December of 2023. In an interview on Feb. 23, Halloran told the Daily that the city has yet to share its complete findings with the union. In the interim, the SMEA has conducted its own study of wages in surrounding municipalities.

“We’ve now conducted our own wage study, and we’ve told the city that we are behind. We’ve held off on presenting our numbers to the city until they give us theirs,” Halloran said.

When asked why Somerville’s sustained record growth in yearly revenue has not yet translated to a substantial increase in wages for the city’s municipal workers, the city provided the following response.

“The City of Somerville is committed to paying all of its employees fairly for their work, which is why Mayor Ballantyne prioritized completing a rigorous compensation study,” the spokesperson wrote. “The City shares SMEA’s interest in concluding negotiations and entering into a new contract so that these vital employees will have updated compensation and benefits that reflect their value to the City and recent increases to the cost of living. It is important to note that compensation may be updated retroactively if an agreement is reached after the expiration of the previous contract.”

According to Halloran, the union has at last recently received a wage proposal from the city.

“I want to make it clear that we’re not accepting [the wage proposal] and we’re not rejecting it,” he said. “I don’t want the city to read this and think we’re embracing their offer. We’ve just received it [in late February], and now it’s going to take some time to look over and determine, with all the individual positions, whether or not this will be feasible.”

Somerville’s director of human resources, the department responsible for labor relations and bargaining, did not respond to the Daily’s request for comment.

Overall, the city maintains that its decision to conduct a wage study was in the best interest of all involved, with concerns about gender or other inequities in benefits and compensation. Halloran remains unconvinced.

“I am a traditionalist,” he said. “You know, both sides go into a room and sit down and if it takes a week to reach an agreement then you come back every day and bargain until you have a deal. That’s not what’s happening here.”