BARRE — A veteran mediator with a solid batting average in Barre has been called on to resolve three local labor disputes, and thanks to Ira Lobel’s successful outing Tuesday it’s already one down and two to go.
The city’s stalled negotiations with unionized members of Barre’s police department were first up for Lobel, who helped settle that dispute on Tuesday, while impasses declared in separate negotiations with unionized teachers and para-educators in the Barre Unified Union School District are on deck later this month.
Lobel played a pivotal role in brokering the multi-year settlements that were belatedly reached with all three bargaining units two years ago. Those contracts all lapsed on June 30 and police officers, emergency dispatchers, teachers and para-educators have all been working under the terms of the expired agreements ever since.
Enter Lobel, who on Tuesday took a fresh cut — successfully nudging negotiators representing the city and the local police union toward what had been an elusive settlement.
This time the two sides weren’t hunkered down in separate rooms at City Hall and Lobel wasn’t shuttling between them in an effort forge a compromise on key contractual issues.
Lobel wasn’t even in Barre — or Vermont for that matter — because COVID-19 has at least temporarily changed the way the former federal mediator does his thing. On Tuesday that meant taking turns spending screen time with negotiating teams as part of a virtual process that kicked off at 9:30 a.m. and wrapped about 7 hours later.
City Manager Steve Mackenzie said there were no handshakes when the session ended, because his team was at City Hall, union negotiators were across town at the public safety building and Lobel was at his home in central New York.
There was, however, a tentative settlement — one Mackenzie informed the City Council about during its Tuesday night meeting and plans to brief them on in more detail in two weeks.
Mackenzie declined to publicly discuss the terms of the settlement at this time, but said they would be released once the union and the council have ratified the agreement. That could take several weeks, he said.
Mackenzie settled in for the long haul on Tuesday morning and was prepared to miss the council meeting that evening if the session dragged on.
In the end that wasn’t necessary.
Even if Lobel’s attempt to mediate the dispute had failed on Tuesday the process was still months ahead of where it was the last two times he was called on for assistance.
When Lobel helped broker a settlement in 2018 unionized officers and emergency dispatchers were working under a contract that expired 10 months earlier and when a similar agreement, reached with his assistance, was ratified in 2015 the second year of the deal had already started.
Mackenzie wasn’t interested in repeating that pattern again and laid out an aggressive schedule in February that envisioned a limited number of face-to-face bargaining sessions before seeking outside assistance. Though the pandemic slowed that process some, having a tentative settlement with the police union less than four months into a contract year is unprecedented in recent memory.
“I’m pleased about that,” Mackenzie said. “I said from the beginning: ‘We’re not going to be doing this (negotiating) for 18 months.”
Though Lobel was successful on Tuesday he still has work to do in Barre where separate negotiations with roughly 270 unionized teachers and 120 para-educators have been at impasse since shortly before the most recent contracts expired on June 30.
School officials have confirmed Lobel will handle a mediation session that is set for Sept. 30 in hopes of facilitating a settlement following a failed first attempt at using interest-based bargaining.
Lobel was able to successfully mediate a dispute between the unions and negotiators for what were then the Barre, Barre Town and Spaulding High School boards. Those boards along with the Barre Supervisory Union have since been merged into a single pre-K-12 school district.
Prior to 2018 Lobel’s attempts at jump-starting stalled teacher negotiations had produced mixed results.
In December 2005, Lobel handled a marathon mediation session that successfully ended a contentious teachers’ strike. The strike shuttered Barre City Elementary and Middle School and Spaulding High School for 10 days.
Lobel was back in Barre in 2010 when the five-year contract he helped mediate was about to expire. That year his attempt at mediation failed and his subsequent role as a mutually agreed upon fact-finder didn’t produce a collectively bargained agreement. It did set the stage for the one-year contract that was unilaterally imposed by the school boards. That contract reflected the wage freeze school board negotiators sought and Lobel recommended in his fact-finding report.