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Patrick, leaders strike deal on unions

Plan would soften bargaining curbs

By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / July 9, 2011

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Under pressure from national union leaders, Governor Deval Patrick reached an agreement with the House and Senate yesterday to soften a bill to limit collective bargaining rights for teachers, firefighters, and other local government workers.

The agreement, reached behind closed doors and slated for approval Monday, allows Patrick to argue that he is cutting health costs for cities and towns by $100 million without gutting workers’ rights. Patrick has been pitching himself nationally as a governor who can work with organized labor under tough budgetary circumstances, contrasting his approach with Republican governors who have fought divisive battles with unions this year.

The issue flared as recently as Sunday when Patrick, appearing with Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin on “Face the Nation,’’ was sharply questioned about why a Democrat was taking away union rights.

A Patrick administration official confirmed yesterday that the governor had received calls from several national labor leaders, including Richard L. Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO, urging him to consider labor’s argument that the bill sent to his desk by the Legislature as part of the budget passed last week did not give union workers enough protection. The Patrick official said the tone of the calls was muted and nonconfrontational.

Yesterday’s agreement, announced late on a summer Friday in a quiet State House, won praise from city and town leaders, as well as union leaders, groups that have been at odds on the issue for months as it made its way through the Legislature.

The changes Patrick brokered are designed in part to protect retirees and sick employees and limit the ability of local governments to make sweeping changes to employee health plans.

But Patrick’s administration believes cities and towns will still save an estimated $100 million per year by shifting some of their escalating health care costs to local employees, in the form of higher deductibles and copayments.

Patrick filed the first bill to force changes in local health costs in January, but has been struggling to define a middle ground on the issue that would provide unions with “a voice, but not a veto.’’

“My administration is committed to supporting local services by providing cities and towns with tools to achieve cost savings,’’ Patrick said in a statement yesterday. The compromise, he said, “is another example of that commitment, delivering meaningful savings to municipalities without sacrificing a meaningful role for organized labor in that process.’’

Patrick also seemed eager to avoid a drawn out public fight within the state’s Democratic Party, emphasizing that all sides shared essentially the same goal.

House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, who had drawn the hardest line against unions in his version of the plan and who drew praise from city and town officials, agreed to the governor’s changes after several days of meetings with Patrick and union officials. A legislative official familiar with the process said the speaker saw an opportunity to repair his relationship with labor without sacrificing the needs of cities and towns.

“Municipal officials and labor leaders agreed to a few changes that would enrich labor’s role in that process without diminishing the substance of the reform,’’ DeLeo said in a statement.

Patrick, in his comments, said he plans to sign the budget on Monday, but will send it back with changes to the municipal health measure. House and Senate leaders said they would immediately take up those changes Monday, ensuring that the contentious issue will be resolved without further haggling.

Senate President Therese Murray, whose initial plan had been seen more favorably by unions, also promised to approve Patrick’s changes Monday.

“We have been briefed by the administration on those changes, and it is our intent to move forward with his recommendations,’’ she said.

The version of the measure passed as part of the budget last week would give city and town governments leverage to force local employees to pay an increased share of costs.

It also allows local governments, under certain circumstances, to shift employees into the state health plan, which has been generally cheaper than most local plans.

City and town governments have argued that the health plans, bargained with their employees, are far more generous than those in the private sector and that costs have grown quickly, forcing layoffs and sucking up dollars that would otherwise go to schools and other city services.

Union officials have argued that those plans were bargained fairly and that they sacrificed salary and other benefits over the years to get them.

The compromise reached yesterday would protect retired employees from some added health costs for three years instead of the two that had previously been agreed upon. It would, in the first year of any changes, increase the size of a fund dedicated to helping older and sicker employees cope with new costs.

The changes would also make it slightly harder for local governments to move employees to the state health plan, requiring them to demonstrate that such a move would save at least 5 percent more than would be saved by shifting costs at the local level.

A coalition of labor unions said in a joint statement yesterday that the changes would address their “primary concern of providing a meaningful voice for employees to protect the very sick and retirees from exorbitant increases in the costs of health insurance.’’

Groups leading negotiations for city and town governments said they were also pleased with the agreement, because it promises to resolve the issue for local government without further delay.

“These are refinements, but [they] do not impact the fundamental reform,’’ said Michael J. Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, a business-backed group.

Michael Levenson of the Globe Staff contributed to this report. Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @noahbierman.