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Unions Enraged After House Backs Curbs on Municipal Bargaining

Apr 26, 2011Council in the News, State House News Service

By Kyle Cheney and Matt Murphy

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, APRIL 26, 2011…..Labor unions were in open revolt Tuesday against the Democratic leaders of the House, promising political consequences for House Speaker Robert DeLeo and other state representatives who voted during a late night session to slash the collective bargaining power of municipal workers.

Calling the vote to an assault on workers’ rights and comparing it to anti-labor proposals in Wisconsin and other states primarily dominated by Republicans, top labor officials packed the House lobby to issue finger-waving condemnations of the 111 lawmakers – including 81 Democrats – that just minutes earlier had endorsed the plan to curb the negotiating power of city and town employees.

“It’s clearly union busting. It looks just like Wisconsin to me. It looks just like Ohio to me. It looks just like Indiana to me. I am profoundly disappointed in every Democrat who voted to do away with collective bargaining here in Massachusetts,” said Robert Haynes, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO.

The plan, offered by DeLeo as part of the fiscal 2012 state budget, passed 111-42, with supporters calling it a critical reform to ensure health care costs in cities and towns don’t swallow up investments in education and public safety.

“What we’ve recognized is that unfortunately, because of the cost of health insurance, that a very large percentage of the monies we commit are unfortunately going to fund municipal health insurance,” said House Ways and Means Chair Brian Dempsey (D-Haverhill). “Now, that’s not anyone’s fault. We’re not blaming anyone for the rise in health insurance. But, it’s a fact. It’s a fact. The cost of health insurance is going up, and the money we commit every year, it’s unfortunately not going to textbooks. It’s not going to classroom size. Unfortunately, it’s going to a large degree to fund municipal health insurance.”

Dempsey was one of just two lawmakers who spoke during the 21-minute debate on the speaker’s proposal. Afterward, the speaker praised House members who sided with him.

“I applaud the members of the House for taking the vote that will save more than $100 million for cities and towns,” DeLeo said in a statement. “By spending less on the healthcare costs of municipal employees, our cities and towns will be able to retain jobs and allot more funding to necessary services like education and public safety.”

Supporters of the speaker’s proposal included a broad array of business and education groups, including the Massachusetts Municipal Association, the Massachusetts Business Roundtable, The Boston Foundation, The Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, Associated Industries of Massachusetts, the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, the Massachusetts High Tech Council, and Stand for Children, as well as various mayors and town administrators.

“We value municipal employees, which is why we want to keep them working by providing the necessary revenue so that they can keep and perform their jobs,” several of the groups wrote in a letter to lawmakers this week.

Tension mounted in the State House throughout the day as it became clear that lawmakers would take a vote on collective bargaining and municipal health care Tuesday evening, and even more so when union officials learned that DeLeo had dug in against restoring their collective bargaining power.

“There’s a class war going on this country and today the Massachusetts House sided against the middle class,” Ed Kelly, president of the Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts, said after the vote.

Union officials made a last-minute plea to DeLeo shortly before the House voted on the proposal, visiting the speaker in his State House office. After that meeting failed to produce the unions’ desired result, Haynes called the Speaker “totally intractable,” and issued an indictment of what he said was an “inordinate” concentration of power in the speaker’s office, one he said caused lawmakers to change their votes in order to protect their standing with House leadership.

“The Speaker told us good luck when we left his office, and I told him good luck and good luck to his Democratic members,” Haynes told the News Service. “Can you imagine what teachers and firefighter and police officers and public sector works and nurses and librarians are going to think when they wake up tomorrow morning to find out the Democrats that we elected, that we worked for, that we contributed to their campaigns just snatched collective bargaining away from them, just took the voice, the Democratic voice, away from working people. I say good luck to him. And good luck to the future of this House.”

The speaker’s proposal – a modified version of a plan issued two weeks earlier by the Ways and Means Committee – was unveiled by House leadership shortly before 11 p.m. Tuesday after most of the State House had gone dark and after a 13-hour day of start-and-stop action in the House. It emerged as unions were preparing to flood the State House over the next few days to protest the initial version of DeLeo’s proposal, which also curbed collective bargaining rights but offered limited opportunities for workers to share in any cost-savings.

The speaker’s modified plan would permit cities and towns to set co-pays and deductible for their workers, but it would provide a 30-day window for labor officials to bargain changes. If the unions and municipal managers fail to agree, the managers’ plan would still take effect, but unions would share in 20 percent of the avoided costs. If they do agree on other plan features, workers would share in 10 percent of the achieved savings.

The proposal also forces all eligible retirees to enroll in Medicare, a plan also endorsed by Gov. Deval Patrick.

“This issue is about protecting services, protecting jobs and protecting quality health care for municipal employees and this reform achieves all of those goals,” said Geoffrey Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association. He noted that municipal employees would still retain a greater degree of collective bargaining power than state employees enjoy in the Group Insurance Commission.

Beckwith was one of the few outside supporters of the speaker’s plan who spoke with reporters after the vote in a State House lobby largely crowded with union backers irate over the final tally. As Beckwith spoke with a reporter, Haynes and Kelly hovered closely, watching him speak. As Beckwith walked away, Haynes pointed his finger at him and said, “Don’t ever talk to me again.” As the two passed on the stairs moments later, Haynes waved his finger in Beckwith’s face.

The House’s proposal will soon head to the Senate, which has voted in previous years for union-favored plans for municipal health care. Labor leaders promised they would be knocking on senators’ office doors over the next month to maintain collective bargaining. Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Stephen Brewer told the News Service Tuesday that a determination had not been made on whether to include municipal health care reforms in the Senate’s version of the fiscal 2012 budget, which is due out next month.

Gov. Deval Patrick has also argued that municipal unions should have a seat at the table for their health care negotiations but said they should not have the power to veto proposals to cut costs.

In endorsing the speaker’s proposal, the House rejected an alternative plan offered by Rep. Martin Walsh (D-Dorchester), who proposed preserving limited collective bargaining power for municipal employees, as well as settling disputes between municipal management and workers with binding arbitration. Walsh argued that middle class families and public employees were scapegoats for the financial meltdown that he said was caused by Wall Street banks.

“Financial companies got slapped on the wrist for all their wrongdoing, while public employees are losing their benefits,” Walsh said, noting how Boston, through collective bargaining, recently reached an agreement with its unions on a plan to avoid $70 million in health care costs over the next four years.

Labor officials also insisted they were willing to take deep cuts to their health insurance benefits in order to preserve collective bargaining and were willing to lower barriers for cities and towns to enter the state’s Group Insurance Commission. Those offers, they said, were rebuffed by House leaders.

Although 53 House members had endorsed Walsh’s proposal, signing on as co-sponsors, just 42 ultimately sided with him when the issue came to a vote – and union officials made clear they would remember the members who switched sides.

Those who supported Walsh’s amendment but later endorsed the speaker’s plan included: Reps. Jason Lewis (D-Winchester), Stephen Smith (D-Everett), Demetrius Atsalis (D-Barnstable), Brian Ashe (D-Longmeadow), Antonio Cabral (D-New Bedford), John Rogers (D-Norwood), Carlos Henriquez (D-Boston), Benjamin Swan (D-Springfield), Michael Finn (D-West Springfield), Cheryl Coakley-Rivera (D-Springfield), Sean Garballey (D-Arlington), Paul McMurtry (D-Dedham), Robert Koczera (D-New Bedford), Ruth Balser (D-Newton), Kay Khan (D-Newton), and Gloria Fox (D-Boston). Rep. Frank Smizik (D-Brookline), who signed onto the proposal, voted present.

Unexpected opponents of DeLeo’s proposal included Rep. Kathi-Anne Reinstein (D-Revere), a top DeLeo deputy and Rep. Steven Walsh (D-Lynn), co-chair of the Health Care Financing Committee. Other lawmakers who voted against DeLeo included Rep. Thomas Petrolati (D-Ludlow) and a pair of Republicans, Rep. Daniel Winslow of Norfolk and Bradford Hill of Ipswich. All other Republicans voted for the speaker’s plan.

Only one of six committee chairs – appointed by DeLeo – who originally endorsed Martin Walsh’s amendment sided with him during the vote: Rep. Alice Wolf (D-Cambridge).

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