Mike Elk is a labor journalist and staff writer for In These Times
Originally posted on In These Times' 'Working' blog
Last night, the Massachusetts House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill (111-42) to strip public-sector workers of their ability to bargain collectively for healthcare. The rhetoric surrounding the bill, proposed by Democratic State House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, is in many ways similar to what Wisconsinites recently heard as Gov. Walker pushed his infamous unionbusting bill.
But how could a state in which Democrats control both the State House and the Governor’s mansion be pushing a bill that attacks workers’ rights to collectively bargain?
The State of Massachusetts currently faces a budget deficit of $1.9 billion. House Democrats say that by limiting the collective bargaining rights of public employees over healthcare they can save the state $100 million a year. Democrats in Massachusetts, much like Democrats in New York, have focused on cutting basic government services and workers’ wages instead of raising taxes on the richest. Thus, House Speaker DeLeo proposed the plan that would limit the rights of employees to collective bargain over healthcare. And many Democrats, who have been supported by labor unions in the state, passed it.
“We are going to fight this thing to the bitter end,’’ Robert J. Haynes, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, told the Boston Globe last night. “Massachusetts is not the place that takes collective bargaining away from public employees.’’
The plan, which now goes to the State Senate, gives local officials the ability of municipal governments to set copayments and deductibles for municipal workers. Only the amount of yearly premiums paid by workers would be on the negotiation table for public workers.
Meanwhile, playing good cop to House Speaker DeLeo’s bad cop, Governor Deval Patrick has sought a more moderate proposal on limiting collective bargaining rights. Patrick’s plan gives unions a limited time window to bargain before local officials would be allowed to impose their own health care benefit plans unilaterally without coming to a collective bargaining agreement.
“This basically eliminates collective bargaining as we know it "says SEIU Local 888 Bruce Boccardy who represents 200 public bargaining units throughout Massachusetts. “This is the first step in a long process to eliminating collective bargaining for public employees in the state of Massachusetts."
Democratic New Bedford Mayor Scott W. Land, president of the Massachusetts Mayors’ Association, told the Boston Globe the plan was necessary, saying “You need this reform now; otherwise you’re going to [continue] to lay off employees to pay for benefits." The threat of layoffs if collectively bargaining rights weren’t trimmed seems to match similar rhetoric coming from Governor Scott Walker (R-Wis.).
The big difference: The rhetoric is coming from a Democrat.
Many have framed the attacks on collective bargaining rights as a tactic for Republicans to eliminate the Democrats base. However, this simplifies who is attacking public employee unions. At the time when Obama called for a federal wage freeze in November, I wondered whether it was Obama’s PATCO moment, which opened up the door for more attacks on public workers. (In 1981, President Ronald Reagan fired members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization en masse.)
While Democrats have been less brazen in their attacks on public employees' unions, they have still attacked public employees unions. Why is that? It's because it's often less politically risky for Democrats weary of taking on the rich to go after unions than to call for higher taxes on the rich.
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