Somerville Community Members Rally to Support Union; City Council Votes to Protect Management

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This article republished with permission from SupportSMEA.org. It reflects events as of June 19th.

By Daniel Wong

Marianne Walles, a vice president of SEIU Local 509 and 2019 Somerville mayoral candidate spoke at the event. Photo credit: Rand Wilson
Marianne Walles, a vice president of SEIU Local 509 and 2019 Somerville mayoral candidate spoke at the event. Photo credit: Rand Wilson

SOMERVILLE – On June 18, 2024, the Somerville Municipal Employees Association – the main city union – publicly demanded that the city council freeze upper management compensation at fiscal year 2024 levels.

Ed Halloran, President of SMEA asked for this freeze because they wanted management to “share the burden, share the pain” until Mayor Ballantyne gives SMEA a fair contract.

Somerville Stands Together, Boston Democratic Socialists of America, and Carbon Free Somerville joined SMEA in asking councilors to freeze upper management compensation.

Many came to the Rally for Union & Housing Justice

That evening SMEA held a Rally for Union & Housing Justice outside city hall. The following groups cosponsored the rally:

Ward 2 Councilor JT Scott said, “When I got a message from Eddy [Halloran], saying ‘this is what we want,’ . . . I didn’t try to talk him out of it. I didn’t try to tell him there is a better way. If that’s what the workers want, then that’s what you’re gonna get.”

Marianne Walles, a vice president of SEIU Local 509 and 2019 Somerville mayoral candidate, said, “Residents, we need to band together. We need to make sure our city workers get a decent raise. Who in this crowd can afford to live in this city on less than 50k a year, with no hope of a raise?”

Firefighters stood with SMEA and protested lateral transfers

Several firefighters came out to support SMEA and also protest lateral transfers. Rather than hiring local applicants purely based on their civil-service test scores, Ballantyne has been asking the council to hire fire-fighters from other towns, based on unclear criteria.

SMEA parking clerk and 43-year resident Courtney O’Keefe said, “Something that’s been really bothering me: lateral hires. Absolutely not, not in this city. We have amazing men and women, who know this city, who know the backroads, who know their neighbors. Those are the people who should be fire fighters. Those are the people that should be able to have a job in this city and afford to stay in this city.”

Councilor JT Scott proposed freezing upper management salaries.

During the city council meeting and in line with SMEA’s demand, Scott asked the council to freeze the mayor’s proposed salary increases for all department heads until a contract can be reached. The freeze would effectively reduce the mayor’s proposed budget by around $300k. They could later restore those salaries whenever they wanted in a subsequent vote.

Last year, the city passed a budget of over $300 million.

Burnley said, “I will also be supporting this cut. My colleagues here will recognize that as in every budget season we are deluged by a flood of residents who want us to put out our city resources towards the place of most pain and the places where we need most to bridge the gap between our values and where our city has fallen short.”

Ward 1 Councilor Matt McLaughlin said, “I’m not supporting this… It’s quite astonishing to me that councilors that have advocated for over a 100% raise for themselves and have tried to muscle that through the legislature here, are now saying other people who work full time for the city don’t deserve a raise.”

(Scott has long supported raising the pay for elected officials, who also haven’t received a raise since 2016. In 2022, Scott proposed “That the salary ranges for City Councilors, Council President, and School Committee representatives be amended to at least the same percent increases as non-union [employees] received since 2016.” A majority of the council rejected that proposal.)

Last night, at-large Councilor and Finance Committee Chair, Jake Wilson, said he would also not support Scott’s proposal, instead saying “why not give a 1% raise to the people who are driving this negotiation?” In comparison, the mayor’s budget proposed to raise most department head salaries by ~4%.

Clingan noted that “[Scott’s proposal] isn’t meant to be punishment. This is meant to be fairness. I mean if you look at this list, most of [the management targeted by the proposed freeze] are making close to $ 100,000 a year. When I look at jobs like a [SMEA public works] laborer [getting paid] $49,139 [per year], these are the people that these department heads rely on to get things done. I don’t see the fairness or equity in any of this.”

Clingan then unfavorably compared Ballantyne’s professed urgency to Governor Healey’s approach of quickly giving unions a 9% raise in a one-year contract then immediately negotiating for the next contract.

Ward 5 Councilor Naima Sait, “As a former union member, I find it outrageous that there is no contract. I support this cut. The SMEA employees deserve a contract and fair benefits.”

Ward 6 Councilor Judy Pineda Neufeld said, “I would be more supportive of more targeted cuts of those that are more responsible for the delays in the contract negotiation, but at this moment, this particular motion, I am not supportive of.”

Ultimately, the council rejected Scott’s proposal, with 5 Councilors in support, and 6 against.

Voted ForVoted Against
JT Scott (sponsor, Ward 2)Matt McLaughlin (Ward 1)
Jesse Clingan (Ward 4)Ben Ewen-Campen (Ward 3, president)
Naima Sait (Ward 5)Lance Davis (Ward 6)
Willie Burnley Jr (At-large)Judy Pineda Neufeld (Ward 7)
Kristen Strezo (At-large)Jake Wilson (At-large)
Will Mbah (At-large)

Councilors who voted for or against Scott’s proposal to freeze upper management compensation, as sought by SMEA.

McLaughlin proposes his own cut

With that measure rejected, Councilor McLaughlin turned to a more personal target: the city’s Chief Administrative Officer.

Ballantyne first proposed this position in the 2022 for the fiscal year of 2023, saying, “This position, similar to a Chief Operating Officer in the private sector, will increase the efficiency of internal systems that will allow City workers to focus on providing high-quality services instead of navigating time-consuming processes. The City needs a strong, operationally skilled CAO to implement our SomerVision goals as the scope, size, and mission of our government continue to grow.”

In a contentious vote on June 22, 2022, five Councilors opposed the creation of the Chief Administrative Officer role. At the time, Councilors McLaughlin, Ewen-Campen, Clingan, then-Ward-5 Councilor Gomez Mouakad, Pineda Neufeld, and Wilson supported the creation of the position.

And, last year, a majority of the council supported making the role permanent in their draft of a new charter for the city. Ballantyne has not taken any action to advance that charter proposal for more than a year.

McLaughlin said, “If I could go back in time . . . I would have withheld the funding and said pass the charter first, but I felt like I was operating in good faith, and I do feel like this position and other positions under the mayor’s administration are used to obstruct me.”

A majority of Council supported McLaughlin’s cut of the CAO position. Ewen-Campen and Wilson opposed it.

Chief of Staff, Nikki Spencer, while advocating for keeping the Chief Administrative Officer role, reminded the council that the city budget has doubled in the 10 years. The Somerville Municipal Employees Association have been out of contract for nearly 3 years.

The fight for a fair SMEA contract will be a long one. Over the last year, the Mayor has typically only scheduled negotiation meetings once every 3-4 weeks. And as we enter the summer months, many in SMEA, the Ballantyne administration, and council will likely take time off.

Daniel Wong is an Inman Square resident and organizer of supportsmea.org. This article is re-posted from that website. Please visit supportsmea.org/take-action/ to get involved.

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