Critics say a continuing contracts bill approved Wednesday by Rhode Island’s House Labor Committee will diminish the bargaining power of cities and towns while potentially locking in higher costs for municipalities.

That criticism is rejected by Robert Walsh, executive director of the National Education Association Rhode Island teachers’ union. He said H5437, the legislation sponsored by Rep. Camille Vella-Wilkinson (D-Warwick), would restore a status quo that worked well for many years before being tossed out by a judge about 10 years ago. 

“The legislation seeks to roll back the clock to the practice that had been in effect from in 1967 until about a decade ago, saying that as long as the parties are continuing talking and involved in the process of trying to reach agreement the existing agreement remains in place,” Walsh said.

But Tim Duffy, executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, worries that the teacher contracts bill could make unions less willing to settle in collective bargaining.

“So if a union is looking at a fairly robust health insurance package, they may want to sit on their hands,” Duffy said. “That may be more of a priority for them than a wage increase, and not negotiate the contract for as long as they possibly can.”

Gov. Gina Raimondo vetoed a continuing contracts bill in 2017. Her spokesman, Josh Block, says the current bill takes into account recommendations made by the governor in her veto message.

“The governor will continue speaking with members of the General Assembly, municipal leaders and impacted unions as the bill moves through the legislative process,” Block said.

The Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, which found itself on the losing side of a House vote on a firefighter overtime bill earlier this week, is opposed to the contracts bill.

“Automatic contract extension would hurt municipalities and taxpayers. We urge our Representatives at the State House to oppose this bill,” Brian Daniels, the league’s executive director, said in a statement. “The expiration date of collective bargaining agreements encourages all parties to come together and resolve their issues. Automatically extending contracts would make it harder for employers to secure concessions – especially in an economic downturn.”