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Newton mayor mum on push to limit collective bargaining

DEALS STRUCK “I believe in the process of collective bargaining . . . in achieving the savings that we need,” said Mayor Setti Warren. DEALS STRUCK
“I believe in the process of collective bargaining . . . in achieving the savings that we need,” said Mayor Setti Warren.
By Lisa Kocian
Globe Staff / July 10, 2011

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While three Newton legislators have gone on record as supporting a controversial proposal to strip municipal unions of some of their bargaining rights, Mayor Setti Warren praised the merits of negotiation when he signed contracts with two of the city’s largest unions this month.

Warren won’t comment on whether he supports the measure, contained in the state budget, which would give cities and towns some power to change employee health insurance coverage without union approval.

But the first-term mayor did offer his opinion on collective bargaining.

“I believe in the process of collective bargaining and I always have in achieving the savings that we need,’’ Warren, a candidate for US Senate, said in a phone interview last week.

The three-year contracts with the Newton Municipal Employees Association and Newton Police Association will save the city more than $1 million in health care costs, according to the mayor’s office. Warren said the agreements accomplish a key goal of his - to bring expenses in line with revenue.

Newton’s chief financial officer, Maureen Lemieux, said the city will save just as much over the life of the two contracts as it would have by joining the Group Insurance Commission, which insures state workers and employees from 20 cities and towns, including Brookline, Millis, Watertown, and Weston.

Dolores Mitchell, executive director of the commission, said the specific savings would depend on the community.

“By and large the GIC has been able to, year in and year out, over the last decade or so to have lower premium rate increases than the municipalities,’’ she said.

The ability to join the Group Insurance Commission is at the center of the legislation limiting collective bargaining. Currently, municipalities must get 70 percent of union support to join the state’s health plan.

The new law, which was still being debated Friday on Beacon Hill, would make it much easier for cities and towns to steer their employees into the large, state-run insurance pool if they can’t come up with the same savings on their own.

Also, unions would no longer be able to veto higher copayments and deductibles.

The proposal has won the support of state Senator Cynthia Creem and state Representatives Ruth B. Balser and Kay Khan. Newly elected Representative John Lawn could not be reached for comment.

Balser, a Newton Democrat who ran against Warren for mayor, said supporting the limitation on collective bargaining was a difficult decision because of union opposition.

“My friends in the unions were not happy with that vote, and it was a tough vote because I’ve always been and continue to be a strong supporter of the rights and benefits of public employees,’’ she said in an interview last week.

“The Newton unions seem to not want to enter the state health plan. To be honest I’ve never quite understood their objection to it. I think they like having the local control.’’

Balser said she has supported the basic notion for some time.

“When I was a candidate for mayor, I was strongly advocating for the municipal employees to move into the GIC because I felt then that it would save millions of dollars for Newton, at the same time as giving employees good health insurance,’’ said Balser, who gets her health insurance through the GIC.

She said it’s easier to bring down costs within a large pool like the GIC, compared with the smaller pool made up of one municipality’s employees.

Another key reason she supported the changes, she said, was because the School Committee pushed hard for it.

Jonathan Yeo, a School Committee member who chairs the negotiating team that is currently bargaining with the teachers’ union, said he hopes the governor approves the changes.

“I think the entire School Committee is firmly in support of these changes, and we have certainly worked with our legislative delegation to give this option,’’ he said.

Yeo meant the entire School Committee with the exception of the mayor, who is a member but is not commenting on the legislation.

The teachers’ union has been without a contract for a year, but Yeo said both sides are making progress at the negotiating table and health care has been a big part of the discussion.

“I think they understand that there need to be significant health care changes,’’ he said. “We cannot continue to make cuts in the classroom.’’

The union and the schools have made progress but there’s still a lot of work to do, particularly because salaries are not keeping up with comparable communities, according to Michael Zilles, president of the Newton Teachers Association.

He opposes the plan before the governor now, but said he would support something closer to the state Senate version. Zilles said he is concerned that retirees won’t be protected and that cost savings won’t be shared with workers in the current version.

Still, he’s not completely opposed to the Group Insurance Commission.

He said there are potential short-term advantages, but Zilles also said he believes there are more cost savings available for Newton over the longer term if workers stay self-insured.

After looking over the municipal workers’ union agreement, Zilles praised the mayor.

“He offered a very fair compensation package. He dealt with them in a very honorable way, I think,’’ said Zilles. “If the teachers got something similar to this agreement we’d be very happy.’’

Under both the municipal and police contracts, increases in salaries and health care costs will not exceed 2 1/2 percent annually, Warren said.

The agreements implement deductibles, higher copayments, a change in contribution levels for new employees, and incentives for employees to move to cheaper plans.

Daniel Johansen, president of the Newton Municipal Employees Association, which represents about 178 workers, said he doesn’t want to join the GIC and the pending legislation was one reason he was eager to get an agreement.

“That’s one of the reasons why we sped this agreement up,’’ he said.

“The way the economy is now, we got a good deal. It’s better than I thought we were going to end up.’’