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Senate limits bargaining rights to save on health costs

After the bill was approved, Senate President Therese Murray said: ‘No one’s happy. . . . We did the best we could.’ After the bill was approved, Senate President Therese Murray said: ‘No one’s happy. . . . We did the best we could.’
By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / May 27, 2011

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The Massachusetts Senate voted last night to curb the collective bargaining rights of police officers, teachers and other municipal employees, making it likely the overwhelming Democratic state will limit union power in an effort to ease budget woes.

The voice vote, with barely any debate, came a month after House lawmakers approved similar legislation in hope of saving cities and towns $100 million in the next budget year. Governor Deval Patrick has indicated he is eager to sign the bill once the two branches hash out their differences.

While the measures backed by the House, Senate, and governor vary, all three would allow mayors and other local officials to move local workers into the state’s health insurance plan or to design their own plans that similarly trim costs paid by municipal employers. Each plan would leave a window to discuss those changes with workers, but would ultimately let local officials alter their plans, regardless of whether workers oppose it.

The action on bargaining rights was followed later in the night by Senate passage of a $30.5 billion budget, which ended two days of debate and is expected to go to a conference committee with the House.

Senate President Therese Murray, who negotiated the bill on collective bargaining behind closed doors, sounded relieved after it was approved without a floor flight just before 9 p.m.

“No one’s happy; that’s how it was resolved,’’ she said. “I mean, we did the best we could.’’

This spring, unions fought hard to block the changes in the House, running radio ads, threatening to oust lawmakers, and organizing protests at the State House. They warned that the state was moving in the direction of Ohio, Wisconsin, and other Republican-led states that have sharply cut collective bargaining rights of public workers. But once Senate leaders indicated they would go along with the House, union leaders softened their tone, saying they wanted to tweak, not kill, the bill.

The Senate approved the legislation as an amendment to the state budget, after making several last-minute changes designed to make the bill a bit more palatable to unions. One change, for example, would require cities and towns to prove that they could save more by moving workers into the state health insurance plan than if they created their own plan with similar parameters.

Supporters said the change would encourage cities and towns to design their own health plans, which would be less disruptive for local employees than moving them into the state program.

Geoffrey Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said he viewed the changes as technical and was happy with the result.

“The Senate framework is real reform for communities and taxpayers,’’ said Beckwith, whose organization has been lobbying for more negotiating power for local officials. “. . . It will protect services and jobs at the local level.’’

One union official said last night that he welcomed the last-minute alterations, but was not happy with either the House or Senate bills.

“We have lost collective bargaining rights on both sides of this proposal,’’ said Raymond McGrath, a lobbyist for the International Brotherhood of Police and the National Association of Government Employees. “I hope the Senate version is what is [ultimately] accepted, although the Senate version is not what we would like, either.’’

The issue gained prominence in the Legislature after mayors and other local officials complained that rising health care costs were eating away at their budgets, forcing them to slash services and lay off workers.

Unions contended that they have been willing to negotiate savings with cities and towns and have pointed to a recent cost-cutting deal that they signed in Boston with Mayor Thomas M. Menino.

The differences between the plans embraced by the House, Senate, and governor are subtle. Senators have said their plan would give workers a voice in negotiations and would protect retirees and chronically ill employees by taking more of the savings and putting them into an account for workers.

The Senate bill would allow a three-member panel to resolve deadlocks if unions and municipalities cannot agree on a new health plan. The governor would nominate the tiebreaking member of the committee. But that panel would have to rule against unions if cities and towns raise copayments and deductibles to levels paid by state workers.

Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.