In his gas tax pitch to angry commuters, Governor Deval Patrick has insisted that he is fundamentally shaking up the transportation bureaucracy and taking a serious whack at generous union perks.
But as he attempts to escape one political quandary, he is creating another: confronting unions that were key to his winning political coalition and could prove important for his reelection next year.
Leaders of several unions say Patrick’s bill, and a competing transportation overhaul proposed by the Senate, represent a "wholesale attack" on the core right to collective bargaining – the central tenet of the labor movement.
The bill, which would strip the MBTA union of generous pension perks and transfer Massachusetts Turnpike employees to a new agency without seniority rights, marks the second time Patrick has taken on labor on a high-profile issue. The governor ran afoul of police unions last year when he changed the state’s policy on using details at construction sites.
"I think the political implications are obvious," said Robert Haynes, president of the state AFL-CIO. "If we lose collective bargaining for public sector workers – for T workers, turnpike workers – I can’t predict to you how bad this is politically."
At the same time, challenging unions could have a political upside, allowing a liberal governor to demon strate to voters that he is willing to take on a sacred cow of the left.
Other parts of Patrick’s transportation bill, highlighted by his proposal to raise the gas tax by 19 cents a gallon, could hold even greater political risk, given to legislative and voter concern about raising taxes during a recession.
"All of it is tough. There is nothing in here that isn’t a heavy lift," Patrick said as he unveiled his bill last month.
Patrick has said he will not sign a gas tax increase unless his transportation overhaul is part of the package.
Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority workers, whose benefits have been labeled some of the most generous in the country, would be required to enter the state healthcare plan, which would save taxpayers an estimated $50 million a year.
Patrick also has pledged to change MBTA pension benefit requirements for newly hired employees, eliminating a formula that allows workers to get full pensions after 23 years on the job, potentially in their early 40s.
"Let me be clear," Patrick has said. "The ’23 years and out’ rule, where T employees start receiving a pension earlier than any reasonable retirement, is coming to an end."
Union leaders said they might be willing to make these concessions in their benefits and working conditions, but worry that Patrick’s bill imposes the reductions through passage of a law, rather than at the negotiating table, setting a precedent for all unions.
"We understand that this economy and these difficult economic times are going to require, and should probably require, public employee unions to step up," said Steve MacDougal, head of the MBTA Carmen’s Union. "But no one seems to be giving that a shot at the bargaining table."
MacDougal said if the changes get "rammed" through, "we will view them as a declaration of war against working families in our bargaining unit."
Craig Dias, a commuter rail worker who has been active on minority issues, said he has gathered more than 500 signatures requesting that Patrick meet with T employees to explain the changes, noting that the governor has made similar personal appearances with community groups throughout the state.
Changes at the Turnpike Authority would be even more far-reaching, as Patrick’s plan attempts to dismantle the agency completely, merging it with the Massachusetts Highway Department.
The plan would eliminate jobs and strip remaining employees of their seniority rights. Managers would have authority to assign holdover employees to new bargaining units, with new salaries. And expiring contracts from all transportation agencies would no longer be the basis for ongoing negotiations.
"He must know that these proposals are antithetical to the union movement and yet he’s deliberately chosen to proceed with them anyway," said Alan McDonald, an attorney who represents Teamsters Local 127, the bargaining unit for turnpike authority toll collectors and maintenance workers. "This is not something that is in a gray area."
The Patrick administration views some of the measures as a way to simplify the system, reducing the number of competing bargaining units and healthcare plans to navigate, and ultimately saving money in tough economic times.
"I would expect that we are going to have differences," said Suzanne Bump, Patrick’s labor secretary and top union liaison. "As this moves through, there may be an ability to come to an understanding as to some of them. This a profound, much-needed change that the governor is trying to accomplish."
Bump said unions and Patrick never expected to agree on all issues, but want to maintain an open dialogue.
Patrick officials have worked closely with union officials in some regards. They were major supporters of his failed casino proposal last year and he also made union appointments to commissions and committees, giving them a voice on policy issues.
Some construction unions are hopeful that the transportation plan will create jobs for them and have been supportive.
Senator Steven A. Baddour, the Methuen Democrat who is cochairman of the Legislator’s transportation committee, said the heat he is taking from the unions is dwarfed by the support from commuters, who are demanding the state end wasteful practices.
Even if unions feel wounded right now, there is no permanent rupture with Patrick, given that Republican governors have generally been more hostile to labor, said Jeffrey M. Berry, a Tufts University political scientist.
"Unions are using their leverage to gain as much as they can," he said.
"And while they’ll let Patrick know they’re upset, they’re also realists and they’ll take a half a loaf if that’s what’s offered. Patrick already has an eye on 2010 and he certainly doesn’t want to seriously alienate labor," Berry said.
Noah Bierman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.