|State representative Dan Winslow (The Boston Globe)|
THE MOST interesting notion I’ve heard during the pyrotechnics about public-employee unions comes neither from the Wisconsin combatants nor the pro- or anti-union polemicists duking it out on TV, but rather from a mild-mannered former Massachusetts district court judge and gubernatorial legal counsel.
That would be Dan Winslow, now a Republican state representative from Norfolk.
The real issue, says Winslow, shouldn’t be whether those unions have a right to exist, but rather which matters are properly subject to collective bargaining and which are solely a management prerogative.
“You can be in favor of good management and not be anti-worker,’’ says Winslow, who served as governor Mitt Romney’s chief legal counsel. “But managers have to be given the tools to manage well. So let’s go back to the classic topics of bargaining — wages, hours, and working conditions — and reserve to management the means of running the organization.’’
Although one can quibble with the details of his legislation, Winslow is on to something, particularly as it pertains to municipal workers. The more that has to be bargained, the less flexibility government has to respond to changing fiscal circumstances and public needs. (A quick aside: under prodding from the Patrick administration, most state workers have agreed to two years without a raise to help the state cope in tough times; their unions, and the National Association of Government Employees in particular, deserve real credit for that.) Take health plans, for example. Because health plan details aren’t subject to bargaining at the state level, state government can make plan adjustments when costs render that necessary. But on the local level, where any such changes must be bargained, many municipalities are locked into Cadillac plans whose escalating costs are cannibalizing town services.
One need merely look to Boston to see other ways that the combination of entrenched public unions and management-hobbling contracts hurts the public interest. Last year, the city agreed to pay Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association members $16.5 million for work they hadn’t done. Why? Because in an attempt to cut costs, the city had assigned the (now defunct) Boston Municipal Police to properties owned by the Boston Housing Authority. That was judged a violation of the BPPA contract. Question: Why should a matter like that be subject to collective bargaining in the first place?
Or take the Boston Fire Department. Despite multiple reports documenting costly and questionable practices at the department, change has been slow. Why? Because most changes must be bargained. Here, meanwhile, is a jaw-dropping example of how restricted management is: Fire Commissioner Roderick Fraser can’t even decide the field assignments of his 14 deputy fire chiefs or 52 district chiefs, all of whom are union members; they choose themselves, based on seniority.
The Boston Public Schools suffer a similar work-rule-born inertia. “Making any kind of change to how a school functions is enormously difficult because even small changes require renegotiating multiple collective bargaining contracts,’’ said one former manager. Indeed, the Boston Teachers Union’s hostility to change was a major impetus for the school reform bill the Legislature passed last year.
Now, union members will object that any contract has to be approved by management. That’s true — yet the argument ignores several realities. First, some of those deals were signed years ago, but despite obvious problems, have proved all but impossible to alter. Second, unlike in the private sector, where unions can provide an important counterweight to corporate power, public employee unions are often bargaining with, or looking for contract funding from, political leaders they helped elect, which creates a problematic dynamic. Of course, in times of contract disputes, those same unions act as though they are employed by, say, a union-busting coal-mining conglomerate, rather than taxpayers whose wages and benefits are usually less generous than the public-safety-union packages they fund.
To make his case, Winslow is ready to take his crusade on the road. “I will debate anybody anytime anywhere on this issue because I’m worried I won’t get to debate it in the Legislature,’’ he quipped. Let’s hope there’s debate aplenty, both in and outside the Legislature, for this is exactly the kind of serious, substantive, civil discussion Massachusetts needs to have.
Scot Lehigh can be reached at email@example.com.