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The national battle over collective bargaining took an interesting turn this week when the Democratic-controlled Massachusetts state House voted overwhelmingly to approve a bill to limit the rights of municipal workers to negotiate over healthcare.Union supporters and conservatives are agree the vote is the latest assault on collective bargaining and an indication of widespread hostility towards public-sector unions. Both sides are heralding Massachusetts as the next Wisconsin.
Admittedly, it is surprising that Democrats in the deep blue Bay State would risk upsetting their powerful labour allies (and donors). But Massachusetts is still a long way off away from being the next Wisconsin for two reasons:
1. The Massachusetts bill doesn’t come anywhere close to the sharp collective bargaining limits that passed in Wisconsin and Ohio.
The legislation allows cities and town to make unilateral changes to worker healthcare plans but gives unions 30 days to comment. If the union objects to the new plan, members get 20% of the savings in the first year. All other bargaining rights remain intact.
2. It is highly unlikely that the Massachusetts House bill will survive in its current form. The Democrat-controlled state Senate won’t vote on the measure for another month, which gives unions plenty of time to lobby state legislators and rally opposition to the bill.
The state Senate president won’t say if she supports the legislation, but she has said that workers should have a role in healthcare talks. Democratic Governor Deval Patrick has also suggested a more moderate proposal that gives unions a limited time window to bargain.
As Ben Smith points out, the Massachusetts collective bargaining battle isn’t about cursory reform or political posturing. Rather than indicating a widespread anti-union shift, the Massachusetts House vote breaks down the entrenched ideological battle lines of the public-sector union debate.
The simple fact is that worker costs are crushing local governments in Massachusetts. Municipal worker health costs have grown nearly 11% every year for the past decade. Employee salaries and benefits now consume 75% of the state’s local budgets.
This story is the same in cities, counties, and school districts across the U.S., regardless of who controls the statehouse.