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National scrutiny for Mass. labor law

Patrick OK’s collective bargaining changes

By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / July 12, 2011

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The White House took the unusual step this spring of calling Governor Deval Patrick to discuss his plan to curb the collective bargaining rights of public employees, an indication that the Obama administration may have been concerned about the potential for national political fallout.

The call was made in late April, just after a tougher version of Patrick’s plan passed the House, sparking outrage from labor leaders who accused Massachusetts Democrats of launching a “Wisconsin-esque’’ attack on workers’ rights.

At the time, President Obama, Patrick’s friend and political ally, had been trying to fire up the Democratic base by criticizing Republican governors for slashing collective bargaining rights.

Patrick disclosed yesterday that several national labor leaders called the White House to express concern about the Massachusetts plans. Nick Rathod, the White House’s deputy director of intergovernmental affairs, then called Patrick.

“There was no message,’’ the governor said yesterday, declining to discuss the call in detail as he signed the collective bargaining changes into law. “They were just checking in.’’

Patrick, who is close to the president’s political team, plans to play an active role in Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012. Political analysts said that if Patrick were seen to be cutting union rights, it could have undercut the president’s ability to attack the GOP on the issue.

“What was going on in places like Wisconsin and Ohio were strong talking points for the president and the Democratic Party going into the next election: that the Republicans want to take away your collective bargaining rights,’’ said Raymond J. La Raja, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts. “So any indication that there were Democrats loosening collective bargaining rights undermined that message.’’

A Patrick aide said the White House did not attempt to coerce or lobby the governor, but simply wanted to find out more about the changes that he and the Legislature were contemplating.

In recent weeks, Patrick has silenced almost all of the union opposition without alienating more conservative taxpayer groups, an accomplishment that will no doubt relieve any concern the White House might have felt.

“It’s a big win for the Democrats, because they want to avoid the kind of spectacle you’re seeing in Wisconsin,’’ said Peter Ubertaccio, a political scientist at Stonehill College. “It would be very difficult for the president and Democrats in Washington to use [Governor Scott] Walker as a foil, if Massachusetts, a Democratic state with a Democratic governor,’’ was also sparking union protests, he said.

Yesterday, Robert J. Haynes, president of the AFL-CIO of Massachusetts, who had angrily vowed to “fight this thing to the bitter end’’ in April, said labor unions support the governor’s final plan, thanks to some last-minute changes Patrick negotiated. He congratulated the governor for listening to labor’s concerns.

“Finally, in the endgame, we still get to sit down with municipalities and bang out and bargain what health care looks like in that city or town,’’ Haynes said. “That’s all we ever wanted, was to have a voice.’’

Patrick’s plan still curbs the collective bargaining rights of teachers, firefighters, and other municipal employees, in an effort to save $100 million in health insurance costs for cities and towns.

But the last-minute changes Patrick negotiated will cushion seriously ill employees and retirees from significantly higher costs and limit the ability of local governments to make sweeping changes to employee health plans without union approval.

Unlike the more divisive collective bargaining laws pushed in Republican-led states, unions in Massachusetts will get a “meaningful role’’ at the bargaining table and cities and towns will see “meaningful savings’’ in their insurance costs, Patrick said.

“This has been no small accomplishment,’’ the governor said, seeming to savor the end of an acrimonious debate.

Patrick signed the collective bargaining changes as part of a $30.6 billion budget. The budget, which was 10 days late, includes no new taxes but imposes some tough cuts.

It slashes higher education spending by $70 million, funds home care services for the elderly and disabled for only half a year, and raises copayments for poor residents who receive state-subsidized health insurance. The yearly clothing allowance for poor children will also be slashed, from $150 to $40.

Patrick said he reluctantly approved a spending increase for the scandal-seared state Probation Department, even though lawmakers have not approved changes to reduce patronage and cronyism in the agency. “I cannot emphasize enough the importance of prompt action on these proposals,’’ he said.

Patrick did not use his veto to cut any spending, saying he regretted that he did not have more money to spend on social services.

He did, however, veto several policy changes in the budget.

One item he vetoed would have allowed Boston’s cigar bars to remain open indefinitely, despite Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s order that they begin closing in 2018. Patrick said the Legislature should not trample the power of local officials to protect their residents from tobacco smoke.

Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.