Unions offer concessions on health care
But hold firm on public-employee bargaining
Public employee unions in Massachusetts, startled by the raging national debate over benefits for government workers, yesterday offered concessions that they said would deliver significant savings to cash-strapped cities and towns while preserving collective bargaining rights.
The union officials, gathered at a State House press conference, said their members are under assault as governors from Wisconsin to New Jersey have directed public attention and anger on public employee benefits. They said their plan shows they are willing to work with Governor Deval Patrick and the Legislature to address rising costs. And their speeches mixed promises of cooperation with defiant calls to defend collective bargaining rights that, they said, “are, and should always be, sacrosanct.’’
“Like our counterparts in the Midwest, we are willing to make sacrifices to protect jobs and vital local services, including education and public safety,’’ said Paul Toner, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. “But our members have made it very clear that they want this message delivered: Leave our collective bargaining alone!’’
The unions proposed giving municipal employees 45 days to bargain changes to their health plans this spring. If they are unable to reach target goals for cost savings, an unnamed third party would decide whether the employees would be required to join a lower-cost state health insurance system, known as the Group Insurance Commission, or accept changes im posed by local officials.
The agreement between the unions and the state would last 3 years and deliver $120 million in health insurance savings annually, union officials said. But, in the first year, $60 million of the savings would be given back to local public employees, not to cities and towns. Union officials said the money could help offset higher copayments and deductibles that local workers would accept.
Robert J. Haynes, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, said public employees have accepted pay cuts and furloughs, “and yet, we’re willing to go a little bit further to help our Commonwealth.’’
“We want to be part of the solution,’’ he said, standing with about 20 union leaders representing teachers, firefighters, and other public workers.
The unions floated the plan one day before a legislative hearing today on Patrick’s proposal to cut public employee health costs. The governor’s proposal, like the union’s, would require a brief bargaining period before local workers would be forced to join the state insurance system or accept changes from local leaders. But the governor’s proposal would not give 50 percent of the savings to public employees, deferring that decision to regulators at a later date.
The governor is in Israel on a trade mission this week, but his budget chief, Jay Gonzalez, issued a statement saying the administration looks forward to working with unions to tackle the high cost of health care.
“We appreciate the unions’ willingness to work with us in delivering cost savings to cities and towns that will help preserve critical services to residents across the Commonwealth,’’ Gonzalez said.
Local officials and taxpayer groups, however, dismissed the proposal, saying it could drive up costs and increase labor’s power to block insurance changes.
“Their proposal is a convoluted and cumbersome process, which fails to achieve anything close to the savings that is necessary in order to preserve the jobs of public employees,’’ said Michael J. Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, a business-backed budget watchdog group.
Local officials criticized the plan for giving a third party the power to resolve union-management disputes, saying it amounted to binding arbitration, which typically favors labor. They also criticized a provision that would give unions 50 percent of the seats on the board of the Group Insurance Commission.
“Overall, their framework is actually a repackaged collection of steps that include no new proposals and, in the end, provide little in the way of reform or taxpayer relief,’’ said Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, which represents local officials.
Mayor Scott W. Lang of New Bedford, who serves as president of the Massachusetts Mayors Association, called the union proposal “a good first step’’ but “not the answer, by any means.’’ He said cities and towns — not public employees — must keep the savings from health care changes, to prevent layoffs.
“Everybody better get out of the old industrial model soon, otherwise we won’t have any employees to even enjoy health insurance,’’ he said.
City and town health costs have risen by 11 percent on average over the last decade, far outpacing local revenues, which have risen by 4 percent on average during the period, according to the taxpayers’ foundation. Meanwhile, the state this summer is expected to cut local aid for the fourth consecutive year, which could trigger further layoffs of teachers, firefighters, and other municipal workers.
Union officials sketched their proposal in a letter to the governor yesterday, but have not written it into a bill or presented it directly to Patrick or legislative leaders. The missing details include what the benchmark for savings would be, and how the unnamed third party would resolve standoffs.
House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said he was waiting to see details.
“I want to see real savings,’’ said DeLeo, who supports forcing local workers into the state insurance system if local officials can’t negotiate equivalent savings on their own. “I want to see cities and towns be able to have the opportunity to make sure they can provide adequate police, adequate fire, adequate teaching, adequate DPW workers,’’ he said.
Michael Levenson can be reached at email@example.com.