Bay State Unions Under Increasing Pressure
Membership wanes in 2010 as state considers limits to collective bargaining on health care
By Livia Gershon
Worcester Business Journal Staff Writer
Rosemary Jebari, an English-as-a-Second-Language teacher at Framingham High School and the president of the Framingham Teachers Association, remembers back before the recession when she often heard her profession derided as something for people who couldn’t cut it in the better-paying private sector.
Now, media reports, particularly from Wisconsin, where the state has eliminated most collective bargaining rights for public-sector union workers, suggest something very different.
“All of a sudden we’re the ones that are seen as having all the money or something, the greedy ones,” Jebari said.
The position of unions in Massachusetts is not as dire as in Wisconsin and some other states where Republicans dominate the government. But there’s not much to say about the state’s labor movement that is unequivocally positive.
Many public-sector unions are being forced to give concessions in contract negotiations with cash-strapped cities and towns. In the Legislature, labor groups are mostly fighting defensive battles. And the percentage of workers that is unionized, which surprised some observers by rising in 2008 and 2009, fell from 16.6 percent in 2009 to 14.5 percent in 2010, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Fighting City Hall
In Framingham, Jebari said, the public workers’ unions have tentatively agreed to a one-year contract on health care that will save the town $2.5 million. But she said she was disappointed that the public unions still seem to be coming under fire from town officials.
Town Manager Julian M. Suso said the promise of $2.5 million in give-backs is a start, but because the city is already well into the fiscal year, it wouldn’t have a huge impact. And, he said, Framingham needs to save $2.5 million every year for three years.
The town has petitioned the state Legislature to dissolve the commission that lets all of the town’s unions bargain together over health care.
The commission system is an unusual one in the state, where most municipal unions bargain over health care individually, and Suso blames it for the fact that health insurance eats up 16 percent of the town’s general funds, compared to 12 percent in many municipalities.
To Jebari, though, the plan to eliminate the commission reflects an unfair viewpoint that puts responsibility on the union for health care costs that are skyrocketing almost universally.
“As much as we make concessions — and we make concessions every year — it’s never enough,” she said.
Public-sector unions say they’re also offering hefty concessions at the state level, in the hope of at least preserving a voice at the table. State lawmakers are taking up a plan endorsed by the Massachusetts Municipal Association that would let municipalities make health plan changes like increasing co-pays and deductibles without bargaining with unions.
A coalition of public-sector unions has come back with a proposal that would set a benchmark for health care savings. Individual unions and municipalities would bargain over how to reach the benchmark. Employees would also be guaranteed a share of the money saved by reducing health care costs.
“Unions have said we understand the strain on public budgets,” said Tim Sullivan, legislative and communications director of the state AFL-CIO. “We’re the ones that see the strain on the services, and we’re the ones that want to protect these crucial services… but we won’t give up our voice.”
Generally, Sullivan said, that kind of defensive position is typical these days. Two years ago, with President Barack Obama’s victory still fresh, many union leaders were optimistic about the Employee Free Choice Act, national legislation that would have made it much easier for workers to form unions.
This year, Massachusetts unions have rallied behind some proposals that would expand workers’ rights, including a bill to raise the state minimum wage to $10 per hour by mid-2013. But for the most part, they’re playing defense.
“It’s unfortunate that we’ve come to a point in our country where you spend most of your time using the most resources to defend basic things: collective bargaining, health insurance,” Sullivan said.
Even where employers are not as cash-strapped as cities and towns, union employees say their bosses are making the economy an issue.
The nurses of Saint Vincent Hospital in Worcester have been working without a contract for more than a year and are now talking openly about the possibility of a strike.
Marie Ritacco, a registered nurse at the hospital who is a member of the bargaining committee with the Massachusetts Nurses Association, said she thinks Saint Vincent has been trying to play on the fact that many workers are in rough shape these days, and on the anti-union efforts in Wisconsin and elsewhere.
“I think the hospital’s trying to ride that wave of anti-union sentiment,” Ritacco said.
But the nurses are decidedly not fighting a defensive battle. Instead, they’re pushing for tighter nurse-patient staffing ratios. Arguing that the hospital can afford to take on that expense, the union points to Saint Vincent’s status as a part of the for-profit Vanguard Health Systems, which is owned by private equity firm The Blackstone Group.
Saint Vincent spokesman Dennis Irish said the economy is a legitimate issue in the negotiations, with many patients putting off elective procedures and many other local hospitals finding they need to lay off employees.
While Saint Vincent itself has profit margins around 5 percent — high relative to other Massachusetts hospitals — Vanguard has been operating at a loss in recent quarters.
And Irish points out that the hospital has put forward its own proposal to increase staffing, though the nurses say it’s inadequate.
Sullivan said one thing unions have going for them these days is the simple fact that they’re in the news. That means that labor gets to talk about the way it’s improved workers’ quality of life over the years, and make the argument that private-sector workers could get some of the same benefits as their public sector counterparts if they had the chance to form unions.
In general, union members say they think the notion that the typical recession-hit taxpayer blames union workers for their troubles is mostly a media creation.
Marlena Pellegrino, another Saint Vincent RN and the co-chair of the MNA’s bargaining unit, said the only place she sees “angry people” who resent union members is online, in the comments section when the Worcester Telegram & Gazette runs stories about unions, for example.
In real life, she said, most people she runs into during informational pickets or inside the hospital are supportive of the nurses’ union.
That’s especially true for patients and families, who are usually well aware of any staffing problems.
“When you’re a patient in the hospital, you know you’ve been waiting for your nurse,” she said. “You see her running back and forth.”