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Unions soften tone on health

Put positive spin on Senate plan; bill aims to cut municipal costs

By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / May 25, 2011

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Massachusetts labor leaders have given up their full-throated battle to protect certain collective bargaining rights amid an increasing likelihood that the Legislature will empower local governments to raise the health insurance costs of teachers, firefighters, and other municipal employees.

Today, the Senate is to open debate on a state budget that includes a proposal, long sought by mayors and other local officials, to allow them to shift workers into less expensive health plans, even if unions oppose the changes.

A month ago, before the House overwhelmingly approved a similar measure, labor leaders ran dramatic radio ads, held protests at the State House, and threatened to oust lawmakers. The standoff, they said, was a historic effort to ensure Massachusetts did not slide toward the tougher measures imposed in Wisconsin, Ohio, and elsewhere.

But now, as the Senate prepares to debate its bill, unions have issued a conciliatory press release, and tried to put a positive spin on the developments.

The changed tactics reflect shifting political ground and a tacit acknowledgement that their earlier hardball tactics did not work in an economy that has hit city and town budgets hard.

Although there are three proposals on the table, the House, the Senate, and Governor Deval Patrick are in broad agreement that local governments should be able either to switch their workers into the state’s health care plan or to design their own plan that similarly trims costs for management. Each plan would leave a window to discuss those changes with workers, but ultimately would let city and town governments alter their plans, regardless of whether workers oppose it.

Several union-friendly senators have filed amendments in advance of this week’s debate, but appear to be aiming merely to tweak the bill at the margins, rather than kill it. There is little sense they are mounting the kind of sustained fight that characterized the House debate last month, when nearly a third of the chamber’s members faced off against Speaker Robert A. DeLeo and signed onto a union-backed effort to rewrite the measure.

Senate Democrats, who hold 36 of 40 seats in the chamber, met behind closed doors yesterday to discuss the measure before today’s debate.

“I’m hoping to be able to find a balance,’’ Senator Steven A. Tolman, a Brighton Democrat and union ally said yesterday on his way back to the daylong meeting.

Service Employees International Union Local 888 portrayed the Senate plan as a victory in an e-mail to members last Thursday, a day after the measure was released, casting a positive light on a plan that many union members would have railed against only weeks ago.

The union proudly declared that the 700 letters its members sent to state senators had won the day.

“Our efforts paid off!’’ union leaders wrote in bright-red boldface. The newsletter said the bill was not perfect, but praised the Senate version for “preserving our fundamental collective bargaining rights.’’

Bruce T. Boccardy, president of the union, said he still believes all three proposals are part of a fundamental attack on health care for working people.

He described his praise for the Senate bill as a practical move.

“Pragmatically, considering the climate, considering the anti-union hysteria that’s out there,’’ the Senate version does much more than the House to at least preserve the principle of collective bargaining, he said.

Other leaders have been reluctant to talk about the issue of late. The president of the AFL-CIO, Robert J. Haynes, who offered the most impassioned arguments and threats when the House passed its measure last month, has made no public statements about the Senate bill, and his spokesman declined a request to speak for this report.

A coalition including the SEIU, the AFL-CIO, and the two statewide teachers unions put out a joint statement praising the Senate for its “thoughtful approach’’ to “this complex issue’’ and offering to work with senators.

Business groups and city and town officials, who favor both the House and Senate versions of the plan, applauded them for attempting to curb collective bargaining and help managers control costs.

“You get to the exact same place if you’re a municipality; it’s just a different process,’’ said Andrew C. Bagley, director of research and public affairs for the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, a business-backed group that has backed the changes.

The differences between the plans are subtle. But Senate President Therese Murray, a Plymouth Democrat, and other members of the Senate have argued that their proposal would give workers a greater say in making the changes and would protect retirees and chronically ill employees by taking more of the savings and putting it into an account for workers.

The Senate bill would also allow a three-member panel to resolve deadlocks if unions and cities cannot agree on a new health plan. And it would give the governor’s office the authority to nominate the tie-breaking member of the committee. But that panel would have to rule against the unions if the city wants to put workers under the state’s insurance plan.

Last month, after DeLeo released his proposal, labor leaders stood in his office, angrily demanding a meeting. But a day after Murray’s plan came out last week, she said she had heard from no one.

In a move that may have helped deflate labor opposition, Murray chose a senator with strong union backing, Katherine Clark of Melrose, to lead the effort to write the Senate bill.

The governor, who has tried to promote his relationship with unions nationally even as he aims to curb health costs for cities and towns, said Monday that he preferred the Senate bill as well, arguing that it gives workers more of a voice than the House version.

“I said at the time I thought some of the rhetoric after the House action was inflated,’’ Patrick said. “This is not Wisconsin. That bill is not Wisconsin. The Senate comes a little closer to what we had in mind in our original proposal in terms of the role of labor, having an opportunity to be at the table and negotiate around these issues.’’

Michael Levenson of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com.

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