THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Unions reel as budget crisis, ebbing clout collide

Stunning setbacks in a House they once owned

By Noah Bierman and Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / May 1, 2011

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Nine of the state’s most influential union chiefs stormed into House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo’s office two weeks ago, fuming at the powerful Democrat’s plan to curb bargaining rights for police officers, teachers, and other municipal workers. The speaker let them stew in his gilded waiting room for 45 minutes. Finally, an aide popped his head out: “He’ll see you for about 90 seconds.’’

The pillars of the Democratic coalition had been reduced to just another interest group.

Days later, DeLeo secured a resounding 111-to-42 vote for his plan, making the Massachusetts House the first Democratic-led chamber in the country to curtail bargaining rights in this year of public employee labor strife. It was a seismic rebuke to labor that has stunned combatants on both sides of the union-management divide.

Though still considered among the strongest in the country, union clout in Massachusetts has been waning for years, sapped by declining membership, a well-financed group of business-backed think tanks, weaker government finances, and Beacon Hill Democrats trying to cast themselves as reformers by showing they are not beholden to traditional interests.

Union workers remain a large part of the state’s economy, making up about 14.5 percent of the workforce, the 16th-highest level among states. But less than three decades ago, unions represented 24 percent of workers here. The drop in membership — which came as manufacturing was replaced by the health and high-tech industries — has had direct political consequences in the State House.

“As we’ve gotten smaller and smaller, and weaker and weaker, there are fewer people who are really connected to unions,’’ said Susan Moir, a former union bus driver who is now a professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Moir, who directs the Labor Resource Center at UMass, noted how few lawmakers have held union posts.

“You’ve got someone like [Senator] Ken Donnelly, he was a working firefighter,’’ she said. “And you’ve got somebody sitting next to him who has no connection whatsoever and no experience with unions. And we’re taking a very bad rap.’’

Even so, political players across the spectrum agree the recent House vote is less sweeping than the campaign earlier this year by Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, and Republicans in other states, to eliminate almost all collective bargaining rights for public employees.

Representative Martin F. Walsh, a Dorchester Democrat and union official who led the fight against DeLeo’s bill, said everyone he spoke with told him they were voting to curb union rights because they believed it would save money for desperate cities and towns.

“If my colleagues came up to me and said ‘I’m voting against labor here to take away collective bargaining rights,’ then I’d be concerned.’’ Walsh said. “But not one person said that to me.’’

“The mean spirit of what happened in Wisconsin, I do not believe is the root of what happened here in the Legislature.’’

Many Democrats, including DeLeo, said they were influenced by a December report sponsored by several business-backed think tanks that found that hundreds of millions of dollars the state had set aside for schools had instead been absorbed by the rising cost of health care for teachers and other school employees. Mayors and selectmen amplified those points in trips to the State House, countering the pressure from unions with stories about laid-off teachers and private-sector workers who pay much higher portions of their health costs.

DeLeo, a blue-collar Democrat, is an unexpected leader to take on unions. But he is pushing to emerge from the shadow of three predecessors who left in disgrace. By embracing the cause, he joins with prominent business groups that have long been critical of Beacon Hill’s protection of entrenched interests.

“We’re watching a slow realignment of the Democrats in Massachusetts,’’ said Tom Juravich, a union activist and professor of labor studies at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. “What we’re seeing here is an inroad into collective bargaining that would have been inconceivable even two years ago.’’

In the past, even when the state had a Republican governor, the Legislature was a backstop for union interests. Labor leaders could move votes by threatening to oust defiant lawmakers.

Joseph Faherty, who was president of the state AFL-CIO in the 1990s, said that Governor William F. Weld, a Republican who often battled unions, wouldn’t have dared to chip away at bargaining rights with pro-labor Democrats ruling the State House at the time. “I don’t think he would have even tried to put something like that through, because of the Legislature,’’ he said. “I’m amazed that this Legislature did this.’’

Former governor Michael S. Dukakis said he lost his 1978 election, in part, because police unions picketed him. In retrospect, he said, he wished he had given them a raise.

“My employee [relations] guy said ‘You stood tall,’ ’’ Dukakis recalled. “Yeah, and I’m walking out the door in January.’’

Labor leaders warned again last week, in a letter to every lawmaker, that anyone who voted for DeLeo’s bill would face retribution next election. But Democrats shrugged off the threat.

“It’s been overused and over-threatened,’’ said Senator Steven A. Baddour, a Methuen Democrat who battled unions when he pushed for a 2009 bill that stripped some bargaining rights from state transportation employees. “People are sick and tired of the constant over-the-top rhetoric.’’

The speaker’s legislation, which would affect an estimated 200,000 employees, would give cities and towns the option to unilaterally set co-payments and deductibles for their employees after a 30-day discussion period with unions. Local officials would have to offer employees a plan that is at least as good as state employee coverage, which has been lauded for controlling costs. Municipal employees affected by the changes would still be allowed to bargain over the share of premiums they pay.

The House approved the bill at 11 p.m. Tuesday, just ahead of planned protests by police officers and firefighters. Lawmakers voted after almost no floor debate. Labor leaders have vowed to fight the plan in the Senate, where they have more powerful friends and where President Therese Murray has signaled she will offer a more union-friendly bill. Ultimately, the bill will be hashed out in negotiations between Murray, DeLeo, and Governor Deval Patrick.

Patrick has been put in a difficult spot as he tries to curb labor rights with a bill similar to DeLeo’s while traveling to Wisconsin and other states to argue that he has controlled spending without desecrating core union values.

But in 2009, he signed a sweeping transportation overhaul that forced 1,000 turnpike and Tobin Bridge workers to accept new contracts and required them, along with about 6,000 MBTA workers, to pay more for health care. He also killed a program that pays more to police officers with advanced degrees and curbed a lucrative arrangement that pays officers at construction sites.

Both Patrick and DeLeo share the conviction that limiting union power will save union jobs.

“What we’re trying to say is, ‘Look, this is an education issue, it’s a public safety issue,’ ’’ said Representative Brian Dempsey, DeLeo’s budget chief. “It’s about keeping teachers in the classroom, police on the street, firefighters on the ladder truck. That’s ultimately what this is all about, because if we don’t have the resources going into local aid for those particular areas, then ultimately, they will not benefit.’’

Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com., Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.