Scot Lehigh

Labor’s health care trick

By Scot Lehigh
Globe Columnist / March 9, 2011

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WHEN IT comes to restraining municipal health care costs, the train is leaving the station. This week, organized labor came to the State House — and tried to clamber aboard the caboose.

“We are here in the spirit of cooperation,’’ proclaimed Robert Haynes, president of the AFL-CIO, in announcing labor’s plan on Monday. “We are here genuinely seeking compromise on the issue of health care. We understand times are tough, and we are willing to sacrifice even more and be an even bigger part of the solution in these tough times.’’

It’s hard to think that Haynes himself believes that. This plan is so silly it doesn’t even merit respectful consideration.

Under labor’s proposal, if unions and municipal management couldn’t agree to an unspecified and non-mandatory — and thus easily sidestepped — “benchmark’’ for health care savings, some kind of binding arbitration would decide the issue. (That idea should be an immediate red flag, given the Menino administration’s experiences with binding arbitration in disputes with both the firefighters and the police union.) Half of any savings through possible plan design changes or joining the state’s Group Insurance Commission would go to union members, at least in year one.

In exchange for those (totally inadequate) provisions, labor proposes limiting the GIC’s mid-year plan-changing flexibility — and increasing labor’s representation on the commission to half (!) the members.

“What that means is that you’d be taking collective bargaining to a different venue,’’ Dolores Mitchell, the commission’s executive director, noted in an interview.

Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, put it more bluntly: “So rather than giving cities and towns plan-design authority, their reform is to give themselves a virtual veto at the GIC.’’ That’s exactly right. Instead of solving a local problem, labor’s plan would screw up the highly effective agency that provides health insurance plans to state employees.

Why, given the history of unions blocking meaningful changes at the local level, would anyone entertain increasing its clout at the GIC at all? (Anyone other than the unions themselves, that is.) As several mayors told a legislative hearing on local health care costs yesterday, labor’s stubborn stance on plan changes means health care costs are cannibalizing city services and forcing layoffs of other employees. In Salem, annual increases in health care and pension costs regularly outstrip new revenues, a dynamic that has forced at least a dozen layoffs in the last couple of years, Mayor Kim Driscoll told me.

“I’m the one who has to look that person in the eye who is being let go not because he did a bad job or because we don’t value his service, or need it, but because his colleagues wanted to keep a $5 copay,’’ she said.

Here’s the real question. Why should local unions be able to negotiate health plan details at all? After all, state employees can’t. Nor can most federal employees.

“It’s been said many, many times . . . that these unions have given up lots in their collective bargaining in order to get to negotiating health care,’’ Haynes replied when I posed that query to him.

Hmm. It’s been said many, many times that Elvis is alive, too. But where’s the evidence? I have yet to see any credible study or information that suggests Massachusetts municipal workers are underpaid relative to their private-sector counterparts.

Although unions assert that that’s true with public workers overall, Bureau of Labor Statistics data for the Boston-Manchester, N.H., area certainly doesn’t backstop the notion. State and local workers earn more in six of 11 job categories. Further, the average hourly wage of public sector union workers is more than $5 an hour higher than that of private-sector union members.

In short, this “compromise’’ is so self-serving it can’t even be considered a plodding, broken-down old gift horse.

Rather, it’s a Trojan horse — and the Legislature needs to beware.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at