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Patrick reaches out to unions

For labor, contrast with tone in Wis.

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By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / February 23, 2011

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Governor Deval Patrick has had his differences with unions, some of them heated. In the fall, police were so irate about his cuts that they protested outside his events and endorsed one of his challengers, state Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill. For a time, it seemed other unions might follow suit.

But whatever clashes Patrick has had, they have clearly been put into perspective as the nation has divided over the battle in Wisconsin, where Governor Scott Walker is fighting not only to cut union benefits, but to sharply limit public employees’ collective bargaining rights.

Compared with the standoff in Wisconsin, Massachusetts is a relative haven for organized labor, a fact underscored yesterday when Patrick showed up at a giant union rally on the steps of the State House and loudly protested Walker’s plan.

“I’m here to deliver one very simple message, which is we don’t need to attack public sector workers to make change for the people of the Commonwealth,’’ the governor told about 1,000 union workers on Beacon Street, as they waved signs, cheering and blocking traffic.

Patrick acknowledged that he has had a sometimes tense alliance with labor.

He has cut generous education benefits for police officers and curbed their lucrative work directing traffic at construction sites. He has asked state workers to pay more for their health benefits and directed them to take furlough days. And he has recently launched a push to give cities and towns more power to make changes to local workers’ health plans without union approval.

But to many union leaders, the governor is still considered an ally, especially compared with Walker. Most endorsed Patrick and worked on his reelection bid last fall, picking him over Cahill and Republican Charles D. Baker, who sharply criticized unions.

“The governor, at least, is someone we can sit down and negotiate with,’’ said Harris Gruman, an official with the state chapter of the Service Employees International Union.

Nevertheless, the demonstration yesterday gave voice to the pent-up frustrations of the state’s own public employees, many of whom have felt under attack by elected officials across the country.

“We’re not going back in the soup lines,’’ said Edward Kelly, the interim president of the state firefighters’ union, who led the firefighters’ standoff with Boston last year. “We’re going to put on the war paint, and we’re going to fight like hell for what we deserve.’’

Thomas Gosnell, president of the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said in an interview, “What is happening in Wisconsin, given the type of nation we are, can spread like wildfire across the whole nation.’’

Walker, a Republican, has sparked widespread union protests with his plan to limit collective bargaining for most state and local workers to wages, preventing them from negotiating over issues such as benefits and working conditions.

His plan would also require union members to vote every year to maintain their union and allow workers to stop paying union dues.

Union members in Wisconsin say they agreed to Walker’s proposed cuts in their benefits to help solve that state’s budget crisis. But they argue that his other changes are aimed at abolishing their right to collectively bargain.

“His agenda is to smash the unions and permanently shift the balance of power away from workers and onto management and the corner office, his office,’’ Paul Toner, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said at yesterday’s protest.

Patrick sought to distinguish Walker’s approach from his own. He sent an e-mail to all state workers, telling them that “you and your union leadership have been our partners’’ and urging them to “keep your chin up.’’

He reinforced that message at the protest. “We haven’t agreed on everything,’’ the governor said, but he added that unions have been able to negotiate with him when he has sought to cut benefits and pensions. “And on everything we do and will continue to do, the voice of working people has been, and will be, at the table,’’ Patrick said.

Specialists in labor relations said the Massachusetts governor’s efforts to trim workers’ benefits are fundamentally different from Walker’s because they would not erode the unions’ ability to organize and negotiate. Like many governors, Patrick is seeking wage and benefit cuts to cope with a fiscal crunch, the specialists said.

“It doesn’t try to break the unions or get rid of them, so I think it’s qualitatively in a different league,’’ said Thomas A. Kochan, a labor-management specialist at MIT who helped Boston resolve its standoff with the firefighters’ union last year. “The Wisconsin effort is just an attack on workers’ rights. The governor’s proposal here is an effort to deal with the problem.’’

But 100 Tea Party supporters who attended yesterday’s rally said Patrick was far too timid in his approach.

“Public sector workers have gotten out of hand in their demands for money, pensions, and benefits,’’ said Bob Kring, 51, of Newburyport, who joined the Tea Party protest.

Carlos Hernandez, 50, a Tea Party organizer from Saugus, said he came to support Wisconsin’s governor.

But he acknowledged that Walker’s policies would not sell easily in Massachusetts, where he said political leaders are “in bed with’’ unions.

“That’s their base,’’ he said, but “If they don’t change this state soon, they’re going to be bankrupt.’’

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