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Push on to stop DeLeo’s care plan

Union-backed lawmakers oppose bargaining limits

By Michael Levenson and Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / April 21, 2011

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Massachusetts labor unions have rounded up support from 50 House lawmakers, including six members of House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo’s leadership team, in a push to fend off the speaker’s plan to limit collective bargaining rights for teachers, firefighters, and other local government employees.

DeLeo has pitched his effort as a high priority to help curb escalating municipal health care costs, saving jobs for government employees and services for residents.

But labor unions have called it an assault on the middle class that echoes Governor Scott Walker’s contentious efforts to eliminate many collective bargaining rights for public employees in Wisconsin.

The House is set to begin debate on its budget next week, and the issue is expected to draw considerable attention, even as the state contends with deep cuts to social services.

In a letter to legislators late last week, Robert J. Haynes, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, warned that future campaign endorsements would depend on where lawmakers came down on the issue.

“You are either on the side of collective bargaining for the workers who have been willing to compromise on this issue, ’’ he wrote, “or you are against those collective bargaining rights and want to reward intractable, uncompromising management advocates.’’

The labor-backed plan — sponsored by Representative Martin J. Walsh, a Dorchester Democrat, union official, and House committee chairman — preserves collective bargaining, and would let an arbitrator decide changes to employee health plans if local officials and unions deadlock after 45 days.

The 50 members who have signed on to the proposal represent just under a third of the 160-member House.

The committee chairs come from the House’s liberal wing and are not among DeLeo’s closest deputies.

DeLeo’s proposal, which he unveiled last week, gives local officials unilateral authority to set copayments and deductibles for their employees without having to negotiate with unions.

Only the share of premiums paid by employees would remain on the health care bargaining table.

Lawmakers backing the union plan are striking a conciliatory tone, at least for now, avoiding the kind of fiery rhetoric about collective bargaining that has fueled protests in Wisconsin, Ohio, and other states.

“What we’re trying to do here is have a fair process,’’ said Walsh, chairman of the House Ethics Committee and secretary-treasurer of the Boston Building Trades Council.

“All my amendment would do is open the door for a discussion.’’

Representative Ruth B. Balser, a Newton Democrat and member of the House Ways and Means committee, said she said hopes DeLeo will forge a compromise with unions.

“We all share the goal of bringing down costs,’’ she said.

But Brian Dempsey, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, said he plans on warning lawmakers that the union alternative would make it difficult for cities and towns to force their employees into the state health insurance program, which has lower costs.

“It will certainly be a healthy debate,’’ said Dempsey, who is responsible for pushing DeLeo’s proposal through the House.

Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said the union proposal represents a step backward and would make it difficult for cities and towns to save significant sums.

“It’s something that’s been offered by unions in the past, and it’s not a viable alternative for reform,’’ said Beckwith, whose organization represents local officials.

Unlike DeLeo, Governor Deval Patrick and Senate President Therese Murray have each said that unions must have a voice in any changes made to their health plans.

Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com; Bierman at nbierman@globe.com.