Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Sound of Silence

You may have missed it, but the Great Massachusetts Union Debate was for all intents and purposes resolved Thursday night with passage of the Senate budget draft. You will recall last month, when the House budget blueprint was met with (literal) howls of protest from the Commonwealth's public sector unions. There were rallies and marches, threats and invective. This week... there is only silence. Ominous silence.
The Globe is pretty sure the union bosses just packed it in and went home, tails between their legs. Under the headline "Senate limits bargaining rights to save on health costs," reporter Michael Levenson describes a resounding taxpayer victory:
The Massachusetts Senate voted last night to curb the collective bargaining rights of police officers, teachers and other municipal employees, making it likely the overwhelming Democratic state will limit union power in an effort to ease budget woes...

The voice vote, with barely any debate, came a month after House lawmakers approved similar legislation in hope of saving cities and towns $100 million in the next budget year. Governor Deval Patrick has indicated he is eager to sign the bill once the two branches hash out their differences.

While the measures backed by the House, Senate, and governor vary, all three would allow mayors and other local officials to move local workers into the state’s health insurance plan or to design their own plans that similarly trim costs paid by municipal employers. Each plan would leave a window to discuss those changes with workers, but would ultimately let local officials alter their plans, regardless of whether workers oppose it.
Wisconsin union protesters
So... if all of that is true, why the silence? After all, an effort to limit collective bargaining in Wisconsin resulted in a near riot at the state capitol, occupation of that building for more than a week by angry protesters, the entire state democratic caucus going on the lam, across state lines. And we are to believe that here in Massachusetts our public sector unions have just rolled over? Deferred meekly to the inevitable? More Globe:
“We have lost collective bargaining rights on both sides of this proposal,’’ said Raymond McGrath, a lobbyist for the International Brotherhood of Police and the National Association of Government Employees. “I hope the Senate version is what is [ultimately] accepted, although the Senate version is not what we would like, either.’’
"Not what we would like," but oh well. Does that sound like the union bosses we have come to know and love?
Massachusetts union protester
“No one’s happy; that’s how it was resolved,’’ Senate President Therese Murray told the Globe. “I mean, we did the best we could.’’ No one's happy - pretty much the defining characteristic of a good compromise. Except... when union bosses aren't happy they tend to let the rest of us know it. They don't shrug and say, 'gee, this is not what we would like.' The thing is, the process is not over. The two chambers have yet to reach a compromise agreement, and then of course the Governor has to sign off on whatever they produce. There is plenty of time yet for the usual union bombast - for the legions of same-shirted "advocates" to descend on the State House; the bullhorn-led chants; the radio ads. But again, only silence. Either we suddenly have the wussiest public sector unions in history, or something else is going on here that the Globe is missing.
I think the truth of the matter is buried in this paragraph from the middle of Levenson's article:
This spring, unions fought hard to block the changes in the House, running radio ads, threatening to oust lawmakers, and organizing protests at the State House. They warned that the state was moving in the direction of Ohio, Wisconsin, and other Republican-led states that have sharply cut collective bargaining rights of public workers. But once Senate leaders indicated they would go along with the House, union leaders softened their tone, saying they wanted to tweak, not kill, the bill.
Once the Senate plan came out, the unions went eerily silent. So: which is more likely? That Robert Haynes, Ed Kelly and the rest were suddenly overcome with a sense of civic duty and shared sacrifice? Or that they managed to bake something(s) in to the Senate alternative plan that will render it effectively useless to achieve real reform of public sector benefits?

I know what I think.


  1. Dan: The issues, as noted at, are the difference in "payback" to the unions for cooperating (33% v 10% of savings in year 1) and the establishment of a 3-personal panel to arbitrate disputes. The panel is not a small affair: the potential for mischief at the 3 person board level is high. Just ask Boston how their three-person arbitration board for the firefighters’ contract worked out.

  2. Thanks Jim. That is what I figured. And of course everyone is still using the same, arbitrary "100 million in savings" figure, as though the significant changes will have no impact on the bottom line.


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