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April 2011, Week 4

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Wed, 27 Apr 2011 20:24:24 -0400
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House votes to restrict unions
Measure would curb bargaining on health care
By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / April 27, 2011

http://www.boston.com/news/politics/articles/2011/04/27/house_votes_to_limit_bargaining_on_health_care/

House lawmakers voted overwhelmingly last night to strip
police officers, teachers, and other municipal employees
of most of their rights to bargain over health care,
saying the change would save millions of dollars for
financially strapped cities and towns.

The 111-to-42 vote followed tougher measures to broadly
eliminate collective bargaining rights for public
employees in Ohio, Wisconsin, and other states. But
unlike those efforts, the push in Massachusetts was led
by Democrats who have traditionally stood with labor to
oppose any reduction in workers' rights.

Unions fought hard to stop the bill, launching a radio
ad that assailed the plan and warning legislators that
if they voted for the measure, they could lose their
union backing in the next election. After the vote,
labor leaders accused House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo and
other Democrats of turning their backs on public
employees.

"It's pretty stunning,'' said Robert J. Haynes,
president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO. "These are the
same Democrats that all these labor unions elected. The
same Democrats who we contributed to in their campaigns.
The same Democrats who tell us over and over again that
they're with us, that they believe in collective
bargaining, that they believe in unions. . . . It's a
done deal for our relationship with the people inside
that chamber.''

"We are going to fight this thing to the bitter end,''
he added. "Massachusetts is not the place that takes
collective bargaining away from public employees.''

The battle now turns to the Senate, where President
Therese Murray has indicated that she is reluctant to
strip workers of their right to bargain over their
health care plans.

DeLeo said the House measure would save $100 million for
cities and towns in the upcoming budget year, helping
them avoid layoffs and reductions in services. He called
his plan one of the most significant reforms the state
can adopt to help control escalating health care costs.

"By spending less on the health care 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,'' he said in a statement.

Last night, as union leaders lobbied against the plan,
DeLeo offered two concessions intended to shore up
support from wavering legislators.

The first concession gives public employees 30 days to
discuss changes to their health plans with local
officials, instead of allowing the officials to act
without any input from union members. But local
officials would still, at the end of that period, be
able to impose their changes unilaterally.

The second concession gives union members 20 percent of
the savings from any health care changes for one year,
if the unions object to changes imposed by local
officials. The original bill gave the unions 10 percent
of the savings for one year.
The modifications bring the House bill closer to a plan
introduced by Governor Deval Patrick in January. The
governor, like Murray, has said he wants workers to have
some say in altering their health plans, but does not
want unions to have the power to block changes.

But union leaders said that even with the last-minute
concessions, the bill was an assault on workers' rights,
unthinkable in a state that has long been a bastion of
union support. Some Democrats accused DeLeo of following
the lead of Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin and other
Republicans who have targeted public employee benefits.
"In the bigger world out there, this fits into a very
bad movement to disempower labor unions,'' said
Representative Denise Provost, a Somerville Democrat who
opposed the bill.

Under the legislation, mayors and other local officials
would be given unfettered authority to set copayments
and deductibles for their employees, after the 30-day
discussion period with unions. Only the share of
premiums paid by employees would remain on the health
care bargaining table.

Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts
Municipal Association, said that, even if the bill
becomes law, municipal workers would still have more
bargaining power over their health care plans than state
employees. "It's a fair, balanced, strong, effective and
meaningful reform,'' he said.

Unions lobbied to derail the speaker's plan in favor of
a labor-backed proposal that would preserve collective
bargaining, and would let an arbitrator decide changes
to employee health plans if local officials and unions
deadlock after 45 days. Labor leaders initially
persuaded 50 lawmakers, including six members of DeLeo's
leadership team, to back their plan last week. But DeLeo
peeled off some of the labor support in the final vote.

Representative Martin J. Walsh, a Dorchester Democrat
who is secretary-treasurer of the Boston Building Trades
Council, led the fight against the speaker's plan. In a
speech that was more wistful than angry, he recalled
growing up in a union household that had health care
benefits generous enough to help him overcome cancer in
1974. He said collective bargaining rights helped build
the middle class.

"Municipal workers aren't the bad guys here,'' he said.
"They're not the ones who caused the financial crisis.
Banks and investment companies got a slap on the wrist
for their wrongdoing, but public employees are losing
their benefits.''

The timing of the vote was significant. Union leaders
plan today to unleash a major lobbying blitz with police
officers, firefighters, and other workers flooding the
State House. Taking the vote last night at 11:30 allowed
lawmakers to avoid a potentially tense confrontation
with those workers, and vote when the marble halls of
the House were all but empty.

____________________________________________

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