Collective bargaining brouhaha

Union officials are threatening to take out Massachusetts lawmakers who strip away their collective bargaining rights. The officials say they are ready and willing to negotiate lower health care benefits; all they want is a say in how it’s done. (See last week’s agreement in Boston, where all of the city’s unions agreed to pay $70 million more for health insurance over the next four years.)

“All we want is a say through collective bargaining over how our plans will be changed for the worse and how we will pay more,” says the Massachusetts AFL-CIO on its website.

The three existing legislative proposals for reining in municipal health care costs offer different degrees of union involvement, but they all end up in the same place. Even the union-backed proposal uses a savings benchmark that’s similar to the other two, although it contains vague language that provides too much wiggle room.

Gov. Deval Patrick says his municipal health reform proposal gives unions a seat at the table as health care givebacks are negotiated. By contrast, the House Ways and Means proposal offers more of a short stool at the table, giving unions the right to negotiate only about the percentage of premiums their members would pay.

In terms of outcomes, the Patrick and House proposals are nearly identical. Both use the state’s Group Insurance Commission as a benchmark for expected savings. The governor’s proposal would give municipalities and their unions a brief period of time to negotiate givebacks, but the cost savings would have to equal or exceed those available through the Group Insurance Commission or the community could unilaterally move its employees into the GIC. (The GIC negotiates health insurance coverage for state and some local workers; its board designs the health plans it offers and sets the copays, deductibles, and premiums that workers pay.)

The House proposal approaches union givebacks from a different direction but ends up at pretty much the same place as the governor’s plan. Under the House proposal, municipal officials would design their own health plans, setting copays, deductibles, and other charges without having to negotiate terms with the town’s unions. The municipality would only have to bargain over the premium split – how much would be paid by the worker and how much by the municipality.

Public sector union leaders say the House plan strips them of their collective bargaining rights and are pledging to campaign against lawmakers who vote for it. The House plan does limit bargaining rights, but at the same time places a cap on how far municipal officials can go in raising rates. Copays and deductibles can go no higher than what’s charged by the Group Insurance Commission’s largest subscriber plan.

The House’s proposal also mandates that 10 percent of any avoided health care costs in the first year go back to workers to cushion the blow of rate increases. Patrick’s plan also calls for municipalities to share avoided health care costs with workers, but doesn’t spell out how much of the savings would be shared or for how long. Indeed, the governor’s proposal is very short on any specifics. It runs four paragraphs long and leaves all the details to administration officials, who would draft regulations detailing how municipal health care reform would work.

Union officials are rallying behind a House budget amendment drafted by Rep. Martin Walsh, labor’s go-to guy in the Legislature. The amendment filed by Walsh, a Dorchester Democrat who is also an official with the Laborers Union, would require municipal and union officials to collectively bargain health care changes, but if no agreement is reached within 45 days an arbitrator would be called in to resolve the dispute.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Still, the Walsh amendment, like the Ways and Means and Patrick proposals, uses the Group Insurance Commission as its benchmark for cost savings. The language of the amendment isn’t precise. It directs the parties to find unspecified savings either through the Group Insurance Commission or on their own, but says the actuarial value of a negotiated plan “shall be no lessor” than a Group Insurance Commission benchmark.

Walsh amendment’s differs from the other proposals in that it would funnel far more of any cost savings back to union workers through at least 2014. A quarter of the savings would go to the municipality, a quarter would go back to workers in some form or another, and the unions and the municipality would negotiate over how to allocate the remaining half of the savings. The arbitrator would decide if the two sides are unable to agree.

The plans of Patrick, the House, and Walsh all aim to achieve municipal health care savings using the pricing of the Group Insurance Commission as their benchmark. The key difference is what happens to those savings: Patrick is vague on that subject, the House returns 10 percent to municipal workers for one year, and Walsh would return at least 25 percent and possibly far more, depending on how collective bargaining goes.