MICHELE NORRIS, host:
A battle between lawmakers and labor unions is brewing in unlikely territory. The overwhelmingly Democratic Massachusetts House voted this week to weaken municipal employees' ability to bargain over their health care. The move has prompted outrage among unions.
And as NPR's Tovia Smith reports, it comes in the wake of more severe anti-union measures in Wisconsin and elsewhere.
TOVIA SMITH: Union members were pretty fired up about this issue before this week's vote and even more so after it.
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Unidentified Woman: We have collective bargaining rights, right? (Unintelligible)...
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SMITH: Teachers, police and firefighters confronted lawmakers at the statehouse. Many, like Danvers Fire Captain Doug Conrad, are especially irked by what they see as a betrayal by Democrats they considered labor's loyal friends.
Captain DOUG CONRAD (Danvers Fire Department): 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.
SMITH: That's been an ongoing theme since Wisconsin's Republican Governor 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 Governor Deval Patrick says Massachusetts' bill is far less extreme since it ends collective bargaining only on some aspects of health care, like co-pays and deductibles.
Governor DEVAL PATRICK (Democrat, Massachusetts): 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 these savings for municipalities.
SMITH: 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.
Mr. GEOFF BECKWITH (Executive Director, Massachusetts Municipal Association): Clearly, there will be some measure of additional cost for some municipal employees, but that's what everyone else in society has had to go through.
SMITH: Beckwith calls the Massachusetts legislation, quote, "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.
Mr. ROBERT HAYNES (President, Massachusetts AFL-CIO): 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 very important pieces of collective bargaining away from us.
SMITH: 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.
Mr. HAYNES: It's the camel's nose under the tent, you know? They take this away from me, what's to prevent them from saying, well, you shouldn't negotiate your pension either, you know? Maybe you shouldn't be negotiating how many hours you work every day or maybe, you know, we should just tell you what your wages are.
SMITH: 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.
Ms. EVE WEINBAUM (Director of Labor Studies, University of Massachusetts, Amherst): In a Democratic state with a Democratic legislature and a Democratic governor, we don't expect this kind of attack. And it's not the same as Wisconsin, but it's part of the same trend.
SMITH: Weinbaum 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 crosshairs.
Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.
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