Massachusetts Legislature Takes On Union Rights

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) says the bill the state House passed on Tuesday to weaken municipal employees' ability to bargain over their health care is not as extreme as anti-union efforts in states like Wisconsin. i i

hide captionMassachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) says the bill the state House passed on Tuesday to weaken municipal employees' ability to bargain over their health care is not as extreme as anti-union efforts in states like Wisconsin.

Steven Senne/AP
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) says the bill the state House passed on Tuesday to weaken municipal employees' ability to bargain over their health care is not as extreme as anti-union efforts in states like Wisconsin.

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) says the bill the state House passed on Tuesday to weaken municipal employees' ability to bargain over their health care is not as extreme as anti-union efforts in states like Wisconsin.

Steven Senne/AP

A major battle between lawmakers and labor unions is brewing in unlikely territory. The overwhelmingly Democratic Massachusetts House voted on Tuesday to weaken municipal employees' ability to bargain over their health care.

The move has prompted outrage among unions and comes in the wake of more severe anti-union measures in Wisconsin and Ohio. Teachers, police, firefighters and city clerks confronted lawmakers at the statehouse after the vote.

Many, like Danvers Fire Capt. Doug Conrad, are especially irked by what they see as a betrayal by Democrats considered loyal friends.

"I don't think our benefits are lavish, and it's very disappointing to see that we are going the way of Wisconsin in one of the bluest states in the nation," Conrad says.

That's been an ongoing theme since Wisconsin's Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed legislation to ban many public sector unions from striking and end their ability to bargain most issues, including health care. Similar legislation has also passed in Ohio. But Gov. Deval Patrick (D) says Massachusetts' bill is far less extreme since it ends collective bargaining only for some aspects of health care, like copays and deductibles.

"This is not Wisconsin. That's not what the House did. I'm not going to sign a Wisconsin-type bill in the end. We are going to have a meaningful role for labor, and we are going to deliver on savings to municipalities," Patrick said the day after the House action.

Lawmakers in Massachusetts say cities and towns must control skyrocketing health care costs or more workers and services will be cut.

Geoff Beckwith with the Massachusetts Municipal Association says the Massachusetts bill would save cities and towns $100 million while still leaving workers with significant bargaining power.

"Clearly there will be some measure of additional cost for some muni employees, but that's what everyone else in society has had to go through," Beckwith says.

Beckwith calls the Massachusetts legislation "galaxies away from Wisconsin's." As the bill now moves to the Senate, where support is still unclear, labor leaders like Massachusetts AFL-CIO President Robert Haynes vow to keep fighting.

"I would not equate what happened in the House as Wisconsin-esque. I may have said it in a fit of anger here and there. But it is Wisconsin-like ... that you take pieces — particularly important pieces of collective bargaining away from us."

Haynes insists unions are willing to give up pay and other benefits to save cities and towns as much as the legislation would. But he says lawmakers' insistence on cutting bargaining rights instead suggests they're really trying to break unions.

"It's the camel's nose under the tent. They take this away from me, what's to prevent them from saying, 'You shouldn't negotiate pension either.' Maybe 'You shouldn't be negotiating how many hours you work everyday.' Or 'Maybe we should just tell you what your wages are,' " Haynes says.

Legislation to restrict union bargaining rights to some degree has been introduced in two dozen states.

But Eve Weinbaum, director of labor studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, says it is significant that it's happening in Massachusetts.

"In a Democratic state with a Democratic legislature and a Democratic governor, we don't expect this kind of attack. And it's not same as Wisconsin, but it's part of the same trend," Weinbaum says.

She calls it a perfect storm.

With new scrutiny on workers' benefits and bitterness around "big government," she says, it's not a surprise that public sector unions are in the cross hairs.

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