Last night the House of Representatives voted 113 to 42 to remove health care plan design from collective bargaining for municipal employees.
I’m grateful for all of the input I got on this issue, in largest volume from union members, but from many other citizens. And I’m respectful of all of the perspectives that have been offered to me.
Voting for this change was a necessity for two simple reasons: First, municipal employee health care has become unaffordable, preventing cities and towns from providing necessary services — municipal employee health care costs have been rising much more rapidly than state employee health care costs and have been absorbing all the new aid that the state has been able to send to cities and towns.
This is not the fault of municipal workers — the problem is economy-wide and we need to pursue economy-wide solutions. At the same time, it is not unfair for municipal employees to bear some of the cost of arresting the trend — private businesses across the state have been feeling the same pressures. Municipal employees will still be guaranteed a plan at least as generous as the state employee plan — a plan that I’m grateful personally to participate in.
Second, managing the terms of health plans through collective bargaining is entirely unworkable in the municipal context. To say this is not to challenge fundamental principles of workplace democracy. There are many issues that are very important to workers which are not amenable to collective bargaining — for example, municipal capital decisions whether to build new facilities and management decisions about which new workers to hire. Plan design is one of those issues.
Plan design is complicated and it is also the only issue that municipal employers have to apply equally to all of their unions. Typically, in a single town, workers may be represented by eight or ten or more different unions. A town can’t have multiple health care plans, so managers must negotiate simultaneously with all of those unions to reach agreement. Municipal managers are very daunted by those uniquely difficult negotiations and the result is that they mostly don’t even try, with the result that health care costs have continued to balloon at the local level. Again, this is not the fault of unions per se. They have played by the rules. But the rules don’t work and the rules need to change.
Most communications from union leaders about this issue have referenced Wisconsin and framed the changes as an assault on the rights of public workers. Many, including me, felt that the rules needed to change on this particular issue long before the political winds started blowing against public employee unions in other states. In Massachusetts, no one is trying to take away the funding of unions themselves or to destabilize them politically by changing unionization rules. I view the reform as a very modest and responsible labor law adjustment that reflects important practical realities.
The interesting question over the months to come is how the Senate will handle the issue. The Senate President has made no public commitments. The measure that the House adopted last night was included in the House version of the budget. The Senate Ways and Means Chair recently said he not decided to include any proposal at all on this issue in his draft budget which will come out next month. Ultimately, the issue will be resolved in a conference committee on the budget bill.