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ImperiumWatch: It Can Happen Here

A bill to weaken public employee unions is filed in Boston.

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Thursday, April 21, 2011

As public employees in Wisconsin and other states fight to hang on to collective bargaining rights, a bill to reduce those rights for public employees has been filed by Republicans in the Massachusetts Legislature.

The Massachusetts bill doesn't go as far as the measures introduced by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. It would leave intact public employees' ability to negotiate wages, hours and working conditions. But it would remove health care, overtime and the hiring of temporary employees from the list of issues open to collective bargaining.

It would also deprive the public employee unions of the right "to classify the various positions and ascribe duties and standards of productivity therefor." Duties and standards of productivity are important because when case loads soar out of control, for example, not only are agency workers strained to the breaking point—which leads to accelerated staffing turnover—but constituents get poorer service.

The legislation, put forward by Rep. Daniel Winslow of Norfolk and six other Republicans (none from Western Massachusetts), would also eliminate, except in cases with "explicit legal authority," collective bargaining for automatic cost-of-living increases tied to the consumer price index. The bill is part of a movement by conservatives who say trimming back the bargaining power of public employees would save states money in a time of fiscal crisis.

"It's appalling that the Republicans would make that type of effort here in Massachusetts," said Richard Brown, president of the Pioneer Valley Labor Council. The Massachusetts AFL-CIO points out that public employee unions in Massachusetts have already deferred pay raises, negotiated furloughs and worked with towns in the state to lower health care costs.

Joanne Goldstein, state Secretary of Labor and Workforce Development, told the State House News Service that the unions have acknowledged the need for "shared sacrifice," "and have committed to sharing in that sacrifice, whether it's [education] reform or health care reform or transportation reform—all of that has been done by the governor with labor involvement... you do not need to strip employees of their collective bargaining rights in order to achieve a balanced budget or to address budget deficits."

And the idea of allowing collective bargaining for wages but not for benefits like health care, Goldstein said, is not "reasonable or, frankly, practical."

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