Massachusetts Public Employee Unions Poised to Reduce Negative Impact of Legislative Changes to Municipal Healthcare Bargaining Laws 07/08/2011

Less than ten days after Massachusetts legislators passed a measure that reduced collective bargaining rights and enabled municipalities to shift a greater share of healthcare costs to public employees, it appears that a coalition of public employee unions have convinced Governor Patrick to make amendments to the measure that mitigate the impact on municipal workers. Anticipated changes by the governor include providing workers with a greater share of cost savings achieved through plan design changes and better protections for retirees and individuals who highly utilize their benefits. 

While hopeful that their hard work will improve the position of municipal unions, the union coalition is reserving comment until the governor’s amendments are released.  The coalition released the following statement on Friday. "The Public Employees Coalition on Municipal Health Insurance has been engaged in positive conversations with the Patrick Administration and legislative leadership which we hope will lead to legislation that in the final analysis addresses our 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. The coalition has some hope for language that will emerge but has not seen any final language and will not comment until such time as we do."

For the past seven years, AFSCME, the Massachusetts AFL-CIO and other public employee unions have successfully fought off attempts by mayors and city and town managers to strip municipal workers of their ability to collectively bargain over healthcare.  In recent years, municipal leaders have stonewalled a number of union and legislative proposals that would have guaranteed cost savings while maintaining existing collective bargaining laws. Over the past two years, many municipal leaders, along with the Massachusetts Municipal Association, have used the current fiscal crisis to drive up pressure on the legislature and have painted the unions as obstructionists while simultaneously leaving hundreds of millions in savings on the table through the rejection of two fair compromise plans included in two consecutive Senate budget proposals.

Meanwhile, the unions continued to offer meaningful compromise proposals and collectively bargain healthcare agreements that included significant union sacrifices.  In Boston alone, AFSCME and all other public employee unions reached an agreement with Mayor Menino that will save the city more than $70 million over four years.  Similar agreements were reached by AFSCME in Newton and Lowell.  But faced with the need to make deep cuts in the FY12 budget, the legislature passed a budget earlier this month that provided cities and towns with the authority to make certain plan design changes despite aggressive lobbying by public employee unions which included AFSCME. 

Operating within a narrow ten-day timeframe that Governor Patrick has to act on the budget, the unions turned to the administration for help while continuing to lobby legislative leaders.  According to coverage in the State House News Service, legislative leaders have already pledged their support for Patrick’s changes, calling full formal sessions for Monday when the governor is expected to issue his proposed amendments to the budget.