After 16 months without a contract, SMEA says people are beginning to quit
It’s been seven months since Somerville began work on a compensation study that’s since halted wage negotiations for its municipal workers after contracts expired in June of 2022. The 16-month wait has tested unionized city staff, as many pursue private employment. With vacancies growing, Members of the Somerville Municipal Employees Association Union attended the city council meeting Thursday to demand the City finish the study, pay its workers fair wages, and prioritize local, union jobs over contractors.
“I’ve never seen anything quite like this in 30 years,” said SMEA President Ed Halloran. “Over the past four years, we’ve seen many of our coworkers leave the city for better paying jobs, particularly in the utility sector. I just talked to someone downstairs [at City Hall] who is working at a supermarket 25 hours a week making the same money she’s making right over here.”
Stephanie Estrela, SMEA secretary, said owning a home and sending her children to public school have enabled her to stay in the city, but by narrow margins. “We’ve been underpaid for many years now. We feel disrespected daily on our current salaries, especially given what some employees have earned in license certifications as well as our workloads. We haven’t received a raise in years and now the city is outsourcing our union jobs and paying them prevailing wages, or even higher,” Estrela said.
SMEA workers are still recovering from budget cuts the city made in the wake of the 2009 financial crisis, Halloran explained. Workers received a 2% raise in 2020, and an additional 1% in 2021, placing Somerville well behind its neighboring cities. But the City is far from offering competitive salaries.
“Heavy equipment operators are paid 25% less than their counterparts in Cambridge,” Halloran said, who went line-by-line through a series of Somerville municipal jobs that fell far short of neighboring city’s pay rates. “Mid-level librarians with master’s degrees are paid 33% less than comparable titles in Arlington and Belmont,” Halloran said. “We’ve lost some tremendous librarians. It’s terrible to see this.”
Meg Ragland, a resident of Prospect Hill for 23 years, is a librarian who has stuck around despite considerable challenges. After Ragland waited months to get a dehumidifier in the library basement fixed, 311 closed the ticket without repair or explanation. It was at a Joint Safety Committee meeting that Ragland learned the city was without a plumber. By then, mold was beginning to grow.
“The HR staffer who handles job posting inquiries told me that when he responds to inquiries about plumber job postings, callers lose interest when they hear how low the pay is,” Ragland said.
This month, the City surpassed 40 open job positions for unionized workers. “Nobody wants these jobs,” Halloran said. “Adding insult to injury, the City frequently contracts union work to private companies with a premium prevailing wage minimum required by state law, which is twice as much as they pay SMEA workers.”
Councilor J.T. Scott noted that outsourcing is more expensive, as much as five times the cost of a union worker, in the case of water and sewage. “We could double the salaries of all those positions in the water and sewer department and still save the taxpayers money,” Scott said.
Scott called the lack of maintenance in the city “corrosive to the spirit of the people” of Somerville. “When we do not support our union workers, we do not maintain the city for the people who live here now, but you see a gleaming Union Square Plaza that’s been built by a massive corporation and there’s a giant ribbon cutting celebration for it, the message is clear that this city does not care about its current residents … If you have to import labor to clean the city, to repair the infrastructure, then you’re not building a community. You are building a theme park.”
Indeed, the City has struggled to maintain its infrastructure as buildings for schools, fire stations, nonprofits and arts community crumble—not to mention the roads. To fix that, the City needs to provide livable wages for its staff.
“Although its current administration talks progressive policies and values, it reflects the legacy of the systemic anti-union attitude that was enthusiastically cultivated by the previous administration for nearly 20 years,” Halloran said. “On behalf of the SMEA work, I strongly urge the Mayor and her administration to release the pay study so we can move forward with the contract negotiations. Let’s work together to bring the same quality of life to union workers, as we see our counterparts provide in other municipalities. I respectfully ask that each and every city council and citizen watching and listening tonight will become active not just about the causes that help the environment, important issues of social justice, climate change, or other important causes, but also become active about the cause that’s right in front of you tonight. A workforce you employ that is subject to pay injustice and important inequity that needs to be resolved immediately.”
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Ryan DiLello is the staff reporter for the Somerville Wire