The House budget section dealing with municipal health care has drawn some serious flak from different quarters, with plenty of media and blog coverage The hand wringing centers around comparisons to Governor Walker’s legislation in Wisconsin, with cries of labor bashing in the air.
One constant that I have noticed in the criticism is the persistent failure of the critics to propose solutions, or to delve too deeply into the policy issues involved. Better to deal in generalities, and use sloganeering as a substitute when the fact sets do not support your argument.
So what are the arguments against the Deleo-Dempsey House bill?
1) It is wrong to modify collective bargaining rights, even when a policy goal of great importance will be achieved. The critics generally go on to give a wonderful historical perspective on the long history of collective bargaining in the United States. Quite frankly it is their strongest and best argument, but it stills falls woefully short. Usually the fact that the modification of collective bargaining rights brings municipal workers to where state employees are with regards to health care bargaining rights is not mentioned. And critics NEVER want to talk about the underlying economics.
2) The sanctity of the contract issue. Both management and labor periodically petition the Legislature for changes in the rules governing collective bargaining. Labor is currently petitioning the Legislature to change, outside of collective bargaining with management, their rights with regards to extending expired contracts beyond the statutorily allowed three years via so called evergreen clauses. Such a petition would modify management’s existing contractual rights under statute, and would be done outside of collective bargaining. The Legislature, as part of Transportation Reform, unilaterally modified the contracts of MBTA employees with regards to health care, and ending the 23 and out provision. Where were the critics on that one? Aside from the MBTA employees I did not hear the criticism that is being made today, although the contractual issues are identical.
The critics generally admit that the House proposal will save big money for taxpayers, but say that those savings should not be achieved outside of collective bargaining. What they do not seem to want to talk about are the following issues.
1) Collective Bargaining has been in place and Unions have generally refused to make modifications through that process to adjust plans that are totally out of whack with economic realities. Yes, there are exceptions (Methuen being one of them) but by and large unions have lost this political fight in the House because of their own reluctance to modify health care provisions in bargaining agreements that are not sustainable in the current economy. The provisions of 150E, the State Law governing collective bargaining, makes it almost impossible to modify a benefit once it exists. Want to make changes through collective bargaining? Modify 150E to give management some additional rights to make changes AFTER the expiration of existing contracts. The Collective Bargaining deck is rigged currently to favor employees over management, and some changes that balance that out a bit would make the bargaining process more palatable.
2) Critics almost always avoid talking about the consequences for union employees that sticking to the status quo brings. The layoffs and decimation of local services to citizens are just shrugged off or not spoken about. Solutions offered? Almost never. The union amendment to the Dempsey budget proposal did not offer any real solutions. Why do such amendments fail to offer the financing necessary to fund the status quo? Why not simply fund the escalating costs of these benefits through the State budget if change to the benefit packages through legislation is anathema? Instead cuts to local aid are offered.
3) The legislation establishes a health care floor underneath which municipalities cannot go in municipal health care. That standard is the State GIC, which insures thousands of state employees. It is quality health care at prices that are appreciating at about half the rate of municipal plans. So when you see the misdirection offered that some regional plans are better than the GIC, or that the GIC should not be forced on employees simply remind those critics that the Legislation allows for local plans to stay in place, but that costs cannot exceed the GIC benchmarks.
Don’t be fooled by the arguments that try to shift our attention away from the important issues involved. The Dempsey legislation provides for first rate health care for municipal employees while allowing for cost reductions to taxpayers that will save union jobs and preserve local services to our citizens. Yes we should ALL be looking for ways to stop the unsustainable rise in overall health care costs, but until that day everyone must share in the sacrifices that we need to make to preserve government services and union jobs.