Rhode Island panel eyes conflicts of elected officials with union ties

By Steve Peoples
Journal State House Bureau
Wednesday, October 7, 2009

PROVIDENCE –– The state Ethics Commission is moving forward with a plan that would reverse a long-held position that largely guides the behavior of labor union members who are also elected officials.

Critics have long contended that organized labor wields tremendous influence in state and local affairs, at least, in part, because union members serve in the General Assembly and in local town councils and school committees. The Ethics Commission has consistently ruled that such officials may vote on union issues, and even participate in contract negotiations, so long as they don’t belong to the specific local union involved.

That may be about to change.

While a final vote is at least a month away, the commission has drafted a proposal that would prohibit elected officials from participating in any union business that affects not only their specific local union, but also the umbrella organization — such as the National Education Association — to which they may belong.

The issue arises most often, according to a commission analysis, with teachers elected to serve on school committees outside the district where they work. They have traditionally been allowed to vote on union issues, even though the NEA may represent teachers in both districts.

“After conducting research and receiving public input on this specific issue, the commission has concluded that the prior analysis applied to this issue is no longer valid,” reads the proposal discussed at the commission’s Tuesday meeting. The first of at least two required votes was scheduled for its next meeting, Oct. 20.

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