Is Massachusetts the next Wisconsin?
Earlier this week, the Democratic-controlled House in Massachusetts passed a bill limiting collective bargaining rights on health care for municipal employees. Unions are outraged; conservatives are cheering, but they agree: like Wisconsin, this blue state has launched an assault on unionized public employees. Democrats in the state say they’re both wrong.
The bill means that cities and towns could make alterations or cuts to municipal workers’ health care plans unilaterally. Unions would still get 30 days to discuss changes to their health plans with local officials, a last minute concession, but the local government has the final say. If union members object to the plan, they would get 20 percent of the savings for one year. Their new plans could not include higher co-pays or deductibles than the lower-cost Group Insurance Commission to which state workers and legislators belong without collective bargaining.
It doesn’t go nearly as far as Wisconsin’s law, which eliminated all collective bargaining for most public workers. Massachusetts unions don’t see ‘not as bad’ as a good deal; they fought hard against the legislation. Massachusetts AFL-CIO president Robert Haynes called the decision “stunning.” The bill passed 111 to 42, with 81 Democrats voting in favor. Unions supported many of those legislators, and they feel betrayed.
Democrats in state leadership are pushing back. “This is not Wisconsin,” said Gov. Deval Patrick in an interview Wednesday. “I’m not going to sign a Wisconsin-type bill in the end. We’re going to have a meaningful role for labor, and we’re going to deliver on the savings for municipalities.” Patrick himself introduced a similar plan in January.
All the bill does, defenders say, is put municipal workers’ health-care costs in line with those of state workers. “State and municipal workers will still collectively bargain over wages, retirement benefits and most other rights,” said a spokesman for House Speaker Robert DeLeo. They point out that the legislation will save cities and towns an estimated $100 million in the next budget year, much-needed funds in a tough economy. He points out that Boston’s left-leaning alt-weekly, the Boston Phoenix, called the legislation “sorely needed.”
Opponents aren’t convinced. “It’s very much like Wisconsin,” said Ron Patenaude, president of United Auto Workers Local 2322. “They’re saying you can have a voice, but not a vote. That’s not collective bargaining. I am totally appalled by the Democratic state legislature.”
Workers’ advocates acknowledge that there’s a crisis in health-care spending. They point out that unions proposed their own plan to cut health-care costs that did not hurt collective bargaining rights. “We’re willing to give the savings,” Haynes has said. “All we wanted was an arbitrator, some kind of neutral process that would determine what’s fair, and what was appropriate.” Moreover, they say, the real problem is insurance companies and rising health-care costs, and that working people shouldn’t be punished for a fiscal situation they did not cause.
“It’s the wrong road to go down, because it leads to Wisconsin,” said Russ Davis, executive director of Massachusetts Jobs with Justice. “We’re determined to try to convince the governor and the Senate to back away.”
The state Senate vote isn’t for about a month, giving opponents of the legislation plenty of time to organize. The question is whether, as in Wisconsin, they can convince the average person that this is not just a union fight but a battle for the future of all workers’ rights. If they succeed, no matter how much Patrick objects, the optics will look awfully familiar.