In Michelle Wu’s first 100 days as Boston mayor, new directions and centuries-old power struggles
“There was a lot of noise, but it didn’t distract from what we did,” Wu said in an interview with The Globe on Friday. “At this point, 100 days later, I’m truly inspired that we’ve been able to accomplish even more than I thought possible.”
Even announced in the pre-holiday haze, Wu’s vaccine warrant for city workers immediately stirred up opposition. The mandate do the inoculation a condition of employment, meaning unvaccinated workers risked being fired, and city unions argued Wu’s heightened requirement violated a previous labor agreement that allowed workers to choose tests over gunshots. Boston Fire Department Local 718, the Federation of Boston Police Senior Officers and the Boston Police Detectives Benevolent Society sued the city in late December.
As protesters shouted outside her home and union members protested against her at events across the city, Wu delayed enforcing the warrant for a week, then another. Then a court put him on hold.
Now, more than a month after the mandate took effect, hundreds of unvaccinated employees remain on the city’s payroll. And Wu withdrew from the key mandate provision, signing an agreement with the Boston Teachers Union that allows unvaccinated educators to continue working in schools during times of low virus transmission, as long as they are tested regularly. .
Meanwhile, Governor Charlie Baker’s vaccination mandate for Massachusetts Executive Department employees remains in place with no testing option, and his administration has won every legal challenge it has faced. New York City has fired 1,430 city workers who failed to prove they had been vaccinated, after that city also removed its testing option.
Wu said Boston will continue to fight in court to enforce its mandate, but acknowledged the current situation is flawed.
“Coming into power just as a wave was starting, and with pre-existing arrangements that our unions were used to, was not ideal,” she said. When leading a major city through a pandemic, she said, “I don’t think there’s ever been an ideal situation.”
Compromising with the teachers’ union was one way to manage city resources, Wu added.
“Do we continue to devote energy and time to a small percentage that is fighting to stay unvaccinated?” she asked. “Or do we find an arrangement that protects everyone by setting clear measures for what happens during a power surge?”
Wu’s aides are touting the warrant as at least a partial victory even as the court battle continues, noting that more than 1,700 city workers have submitted proof of vaccinations since the warrant was announced. More than 95% of the city’s approximately 19,000 employees have been vaccinated.
Even among the three public safety unions that have challenged Wu’s tenure in court, nearly all members have been vaccinated, underscoring how the fight has been less about the vaccine and more about establish a power dynamic with the new mayor. Look no further than the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association’s vote last month on a draft vaccine policy agreement with the city. Nearly 90% of the approximately 900 members who voted shot him down — even though most members are vaccinated and could gain sanity and wellness days from the deal.
“It wasn’t a vaccine issue, it wasn’t a mandate issue, it was a binding arbitration issue that we had,” firefighters union president John Soares said of the dispute. of that group with Wu. Soares said it was important for union leaders to set the tone for the new administration: “If we had given that up there, we might have been followed all the way.”
Indeed, union negotiations over the vaccine mandate are just a prelude to greater dramas to come, as the city prepares to renegotiate important union contracts. Some of the most contentious sessions are likely to come with the police unions, as Wu intends to use the bargaining process to enact change in the scandal-ridden department. Wu called for limiting police department spending on overtime pay and also advocated for greater transparency and public accountability when officers use force, proposals that won broad public support for the aftermath of the 2020 murder of George Floyd.
“It’s going to be the battle royale,” predicted Joyce Ferriabough Bolling, a seasoned political strategist. But she expressed her confidence in Wu: “She will hold on.”
Such fights are a rite of passage for Boston mayors. Public safety unions have historically enjoyed great public sympathy and they wield significant power in contract negotiations because they can rely on binding arbitration, a route that has historically proven favorable to them. Over the decades, they have demonstrated their willingness to come out in force against the mayors they oppose.
Hundreds of police union members picketed former mayor Kevin H. White’s inauguration in 1972, demanding higher pay. It took a four-year stalemate and a substantial raise before the Thomas M. Menino administration could persuade the firefighters union to agree to random drug and alcohol testing — even after two died. firefighters in a 2007 fire, one with traces of cocaine in his system and the other with a blood alcohol level more than three times the legal limit. During a particularly bitter contract dispute, a firefighter allegedly spat at the mayor’s wife, Angela Menino.
Even Martin J. Walsh, whose role as a union leader fueled his political rise in Boston, saw his administration sued by the firefighters union.
Mike Ross, a former Boston City Council president who helped facilitate a 2010 agreement between the city and the firefighters’ union, said, “It’s nothing new for public safety unions to use all kinds of tactics, fair and unfair, against the mayor of the city. from Boston.
But there is a new dynamic under Wu, he suggested. Wu was not the public safety unions’ candidate, endorsements and campaign contributions show. But she still won a landslide victory, a potential sign that their influence is waning.
“The fact that Mayor Wu is not counting on the public safety unions to re-elect her is a very strong card she holds — a card that was not necessarily held by her predecessors,” Ross said. This positions her to confront the old power structure in a new way, he added. “Where his predecessors might be more swaggering, I think Mayor Wu is going to be more intellectual.”
Union leaders said they hope the fight against vaccines has not soured their relationship with the new administration. After all, labor management issues “will never end,” Soares said. “I think Fred Flintstone had it.”
Even as his administration struggled in marathon negotiating sessions, Wu said it was crucial to stay focused on the rest of his agenda. She faced a quicker-than-usual transition, taking office just two weeks after winning the election, and immediately made it clear she would run the city differently. Initially, Wu said she would begin counting her 100 days in January, when most mayors begin their terms. But his administration changed course and marked it last week, calling it a celebration of all that has already been achieved.
“Whether this is an ideal situation or not, we’ve gotten that head start in our administration, and we’ve worked every day to make those early days count,” Wu said.
In January, Wu led the city through a major snowstorm, earning largely positive reviews. His administration moved more than 150 people living in a homeless encampment in the area of town known as Mass. and Cass in transitional housing and cleared the area – an achievement that eluded both Walsh and Acting Mayor Kim Janey, despite their efforts in the area – although drug use, vandalism and vagrancy persist. Wu has expanded free bus routes, pledged tens of millions of dollars to improve public housing, stalled controversial plans for a Boston Harbor waterfront skyscraper, launched a search for a new police commissioner and school principal, and city funds stripped of fossil fuels.
“I’m not aware of a promise she made that she hasn’t already started the conversation, hired someone, or finished,” said State Senator Lydia Edwards, an ally of Wu. .
Just last week, Wu set up new offices for early childhood and urban agriculture, but it remains to be seen what fruits these new bureaucratic ventures will bear. His pace and progress will depend on his ability to balance Boston traditions with his new priorities.
“This is Boston. This is our city’s ethos. There’s so much history here and it’s a treasure trove,” Wu said. But it’s also “a double-edged sword” — “being so connected to the legacy, and making sure we continue to build on it and not just keep the way things have always been.”