Late last night, before the union bosses could organize the kind of flash mob that besieged the capitol building in Wisconsin last month, a healthy majority of the Democrat-dominated Massachusetts House of Representatives stepped up, finally, to deal with the out of control cost of municipal employee health benefits. Why? Recognition of harsh and simple reality.
"What we've recognized is that unfortunately, because of the cost of health insurance, that a very large percentage of the monies we commit are unfortunately going to fund municipal health insurance," said House Ways and Means Chair Brian Dempsey (D-Haverhill). "Now, that's not anyone's fault. We're not blaming anyone for the rise in health insurance. But, it's a fact. It's a fact. The cost of health insurance is going up, and the money we commit every year, it's unfortunately not going to textbooks. It's not going to classroom size. Unfortunately, it's going to a large degree to fund municipal health insurance." [State House News]I doubt one can find a more cogent, dispassionate statement of the rationale behind curtailing union influence on local benefits than that one. Despite union boss rhetoric intended to inflame membership and misrepresent the move as "union busting" or "class warfare," Chairman Dempsey has it exactly right. Nobody is blaming unionized workers for the cost of their benefits. But that cost is not sustainable. Trying to maintain them will lead to layoffs, deeper cuts to essential services, and worse. And the only way to rectify the current situation is to do what the legislation passed last night would do: release the unions' stranglehold on benefit levels.
My three year old daughter has a fairly limited repertoire when it comes to "debate" over things she wants. When she does not get them, she pitches a fit.
Union leadership uses pretty much the same approach.
“It’s clearly union busting. It looks just like Wisconsin to me. It looks just like Ohio to me. It looks just like Indiana to me. I am profoundly disappointed in every Democrat who voted to do away with collective bargaining here in Massachusetts,” said Robert Haynes, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO...
“There’s a class war going on this country and today the Massachusetts House sided against the middle class,” Ed Kelly, president of the Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts, said after the vote. [State House News]
|The only tool in the Union Boss box|
Here's more Haynes (still from the SHNS):
“Can you imagine what teachers and firefighters and police officers and public sector workers and nurses and librarians are going to think when they wake up tomorrow morning to find out the Democrats that we elected, that we worked for, that we contributed to their campaigns just snatched collective bargaining away from them, just took the voice, the Democratic voice, away from working people. I say good luck to him. And good luck to the future of this House.”It occurs to me that part of the explanation for the Beacon Hill House Democrats' sudden conversion on collective bargaining might be explained right there. Perhaps some of the Reps got sick of the union bosses' increasingly explicit claims to ownership of their votes?
I can imagine what public employees are going to be told to think by Haynes, Kelly and their cronies. What they should be thinking, however, is that the steps being taken this week, if seen through (more on that in a second) will stabilize the system, avoid lay-offs, and lay a foundation for sustainable benefits going forward. This is a good thing for municipal employees, who will continue to enjoy a level of job stability and benefits that far exceed what most private sector workers see. The only losers here are the union bosses, who will see their own influence - and therefore their relevance - sharply curtailed.
|Haynes in a standard pose|
It may seem counterintuitive, but the continued growth of public sector unions may have negative consequences for organized labor overall. Some select public sector professions still carry political influence—such as police, firefighters, and teachers—but on the whole, government bureaucrats are far less sympathetic figures than, say, manufacturing workers. Public sector unions are also much newer, and their very existence has always been controversial. As recently as 1955, no less a figure than George Meany, then head of the AFL-CIO, believed it was “impossible to bargain collectively with the government.”
For that matter, the perception is widespread that government workers have never really been able to justify collective bargaining protections. “Government workers were not exploited,” Henry Farber, a labor economist at Princeton University, told the Washington Post. “They were never squeezed the same way as workers in the private sector were, because they had civil service protections.”
So in an era when state and local budgets are swamped by employee costs, politicians are having to choose between responding to the taxpayers and responding to public employee unions. For Republicans, few of whom get campaign cash from unions, the choice is easy.Still, what happened on Beacon Hill last night is merely a first step. Haynes and his pals still have cards left to play. If this urgently needed reform is to be enacted, our absentee Governor, who has been all but invisible as this contentious issue boils over in the House, is going to have to show some leadership. More SHNS:
The House’s proposal will soon head to the Senate, which has voted in previous years for union-favored plans for municipal health care. Labor leaders promised they would be knocking on senators’ office doors over the next month to maintain collective bargaining. Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Stephen Brewer told the News Service Tuesday that a determination had not been made on whether to include municipal health care reforms in the Senate's version of the fiscal 2012 budget, which is due out next month.
Gov. Deval Patrick has also argued that municipal unions should have a seat at the table for their health care negotiations but said they should not have the power to veto proposals to cut costs.The House plan maintains a union "seat at the table." The deciding factor will be whether the Governor believes that "seat" should continue to wield disproportionate influence.
Here's one more highly symbolic bit from the SHNS coverage:
[Mass Municipal Association President Geoffrey] Beckwith was one of the few outside supporters of the speaker’s plan who spoke with reporters after the vote in a State House lobby largely crowded with union backers irate over the final tally. As Beckwith spoke with a reporter, Haynes and Kelly hovered closely, watching him speak. As Beckwith walked away, Haynes pointed his finger at him and said, “Don’t ever talk to me again.” As the two passed on the stairs moments later, Haynes waved his finger in Beckwith’s face.When my three year old pitches a fit, we put her in time out until she calms down. While we continue to value our public employees, and to fairly compensate them for their work, it's probably time to put people like Haynes and his cronies in permanent time out - where they won't have to worry about talking to folks like Beckwith ever again. Their vitriol and thuggish tactics add nothing to the debate and do a disservice to the people they supposedly represent.