Senate plan gives more to unions

Would pass on savings in health care costs

By Noah Bierman and Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / May 18, 2011

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Massachusetts Senate leaders, breaking their silence over one of the most hotly debated issues on Beacon Hill, will release a plan today to curb the collective bargaining rights of teachers, police officers, and other municipal workers in an effort to save money for struggling cities and towns.

The plan, which will be released as part of the Senate’s budget proposal, follows a vote in the House last month that made it the first Democratic-led chamber in the nation to reduce public employee bargaining rights. Governor Deval Patrick has offered his own version of the legislation aimed at controlling the escalating cost of health insurance for cities and towns.

The Senate’s proposal, obtained by the Globe, attempts to give more relief to unions. Unlike the House plan, which caused a firestorm among labor leaders, this version could give union workers more of the savings from health care changes and more of an opportunity to appeal management decisions they oppose. It was unclear late yesterday whether those changes will be enough to satisfy union officials.

The plan also throws some of the thorniest decisions into the governor’s hands as he is trying to make himself a national spokesman on health care issues.

Patrick has tried to mollify both sides in the contentious debate over health benefits, saying he believes unions deserve a place at the table, but should not be allowed to block money-saving changes.

The Senate proposal, like the House one that preceded it, would give local governments 30 days to reach an agreement with their unions on significant health plan changes. In the case of a deadlock, the House plan allows mayors and town managers to set copayments and deductibles unilaterally.

But the Senate plan creates a new way to resolve such disputes, empowering the governor. If the sides do not agree, the dispute would go to a three-member review panel: with one union representative, one management representative, and a crucial tie-breaking vote appointed by the governor’s budget chief.

If the panel determines that the changes proposed by management at least match the health benefits given to state workers, the review panel would be required to approve them. If not, the panel would have discretion to consider union alternatives or to give more of the savings from insurance plan changes back to workers.

Regardless of what the panel decides, the Senate measure allows as much as one third of the cost savings from health changes to go back to municipal workers, whereas the House plan gives workers between 10 percent and 20 percent of that savings, but only in the first year.

Today’s proposal has been shrouded in secrecy, as labor and municipal leaders have lobbied their senators since the House vote. Senate President Therese Murray, who helped craft the plan, has offered only hints of how aggressive her chamber would be in curbing union power, but has said she agrees with Patrick’s philosophy that unions should have a voice.

“I emphatically agree with the governor that labor has to be at the table,’’ she told business leaders last month.

Senate leaders shared the plan yesterday with members of the chamber’s budget committee and are set to unveil the measure formally at a press conference this morning. It is scheduled for a full debate next week, when senators will be allowed to propose amendments.

Efforts to limit collective bargaining have gained prominence in the Legislature amid skyrocketing health costs for cities and towns, which have been forced to lay off workers and reduce services in the down economy.

The issue has angered union leaders, who say the state is moving toward stripping employees’ collective bargaining rights won over decades. Proponents of the House and Senate measures say they are moderate changes and necessary because unions have resisted past efforts to rein in the high cost of benefits, which are more generous than private-sector benefits, even as cities and towns struggle financially.

Noah Bierman can be reached at; Michael Levenson can be reached at