News & Events

Unions’ support is no lock for Patrick

Budget woes strain relations

By Brian C. Mooney, Globe Staff  |  March 8, 2010

First in an occasional series.

Of all the daunting challenges facing Deval Patrick this reelection year, there is one that would have been especially difficult to imagine more than three years ago when he became the first Democrat in 16 years to assume the governor’s office: unrest in the ranks of organized labor, particularly among public employee unions.

Their grievances are many, and mostly a product of steps taken by Patrick, usually in conjunction with the Legislature, to wring savings from a state budget beset annually by a series of shortfalls in a tumbling economy. In Massachusetts, where most public employees belong to labor unions, the measures have created cracks in the longstanding alliance between labor and the Democratic Party.

Police are irate over deep cuts in incentive pay for college degrees and the onset of civilian flaggers on state road projects. Many teachers are upset by elements of a sweeping education law that could result in firings at underperforming schools. Unions at the debt-ridden MBTA are in court fighting rollbacks of their benefits, and employees at agencies consolidated under a transportation overhaul are worried about jobs and benefits as their former departments are combined. Workers at four residential facilities slated for closing by the Department of Mental Retardation fear the loss of hundreds of jobs.

Many of these changes were pushed unsuccessfully by Patrick’s Republican predecessors, who failed to win approval in the overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature or abandoned them in the face of stiff political resistance.

“The public employee unions are used to getting their way on Beacon Hill, and this is a broad array of issues in which they’ve sustained setbacks,’’ said Michael J. Widmer, president of the business-backed Massachusetts Taxpayer Foundation. “The governor has shown leadership in taking on a host of issues that are near and dear to the hearts of public employee unions. Whether the public will give the governor credit is an open question, but the vast majority certainly support these initiatives.’’

Robert J. Haynes, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, said union members have sacrificed during tough economic times but are “frustrated because Democrats who we’ve supported, who are supposed to be the party of workers, have gone after our basic right to collectively bargain . . . . We’ll look to any candidate from any party for any office who will stand up and fight for workers.’’

Patrick’s labor problems are concentrated in the public-sector unions. Last month he bailed out of a scheduled address to a gathering of state labor leaders in Plymouth after learning that some planned to honor a picket line of police protesters outside the hotel. An informal Globe survey of several leaders in private-sector unions in the building trades and service sectors showed that Patrick enjoys at least cordial, if not warm, working relationships with them.

The governor vigorously defends himself against the complaints and seemed wounded by the insinuation that he is anti-union.

“I’m from a union household, and my comfort level and respect for unions runs deep,’’ he said in a telephone interview. “I think that my demonstrable commitment to working people and families is greater than my [Republican] predecessors and any of the other candidates in the race.’’

Labor support was only one element of a broader grass-roots coalition that helped to easily sweep Patrick into office in 2006.

“I didn’t make these decisions with the intention of going after anybody,’’ Patrick said. “It’s a reflection of the crisis we’re in right now. We’ve been trying to do what’s right for the best interests of the Commonwealth, and we need everybody to work with us here.’’

Under Patrick, thousands of public employee jobs have been preserved through federal stimulus money, including more than $26 million in discretionary funds used to retain 230 firefighters in 85 communities and 83 police officers in 35 municipalities, his office said.

Formal union endorsement proceedings are not underway yet, and officials said they could not predict the outcome. But union members may have difficulty finding a more palatable alternative in the race. Patrick’s principal challengers – Republicans Charles D. Baker Jr. and Christy Mihos and an independent, state Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill – are all vowing to cut the size of government. Baker, for instance, favors more drastic measures to improve education.

All three, however, said they either oppose the cuts Patrick made in so-called Quinn Bill educational incentive pay for police officers or object to the way it was done. Cahill last week attended an introductory meeting with Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association members who have been critical of Patrick.

Even if Patrick were to succeed in persuading unions to support him again, the special US Senate election last January has called into question the ability of union leaders to deliver their membership’s votes to favored candidates. A poll commissioned for the national AFL-CIO showed that more union households supported Republican US Senate candidate Scott Brown than Democrat Martha Coakley, who had the state AFL-CIO’s endorsement.

The unions that are most incensed with Patrick are the police, who have seen Quinn Bill incentive pay cut this year by more than $40 million and their take-home pay further depleted by the replacement of police details with civilian flaggers on many state road construction projects.

“I talk to members all the time and they feel like they’re whipping boys and girls here,’’ said David J. Holway, president of the Bay State-based National Association of Government Employees, whose membership includes many police union locals. “We had 16 years of dealing with Republican governors and there were expectations we’d be treated a little better than we had, and those expectations weren’t met.’’

One of Patrick’s harshest critics is Hugh J. Cameron, president of the 3,700-member Massachusetts Coalition of Police, and a leader of the informational picketing campaign of Patrick.

“I think we’ve given quite enough in terms of salaries and health insurance benefits,’’ Cameron said. “We can’t correct the economy on the backs of the working police officers in the Commonwealth.’’

The Quinn Bill has always had critics who argue it’s too generous, but there has never been a serious attempt to cut the funding. The state has long reimbursed cities and towns for half of the cost of the program, which provided an average of more than $10,000 a year for those officers who pursued a degree in law enforcement, criminal justice, or law. This fiscal year’s budget cut the state’s more than $50 million appropriation to $10 million; in his proposed 2011 budget, Patrick wants to reduce that to $5 million. Patrick has also filed legislation that would exempt communities from being forced to pick up the state’s share of the bonus program.

The flagger provision, which went into effect in October 2008, has produced only a modest savings on state road and bridge projects because the law requires the payment of union-level prevailing wages, and the Legislature did not require cities and towns to hire flaggers. The savings result from the flexibility in the law that allows the state to determine staffing levels and hours, according to Luisa Paiewonsky, the highway administrator at the Department of Transportation.

The cost of traffic details declined from about 4.4 percent of construction costs to 3.1 percent last year, she said.

That would translate to a savings of about $9 million on last year’s $700 million outlay for road projects.

Patrick has also faced criticism from teachers unions over parts of the landmark education reform enacted in January, which granted sweeping new powers to superintendents over staffing and workplace rules at failing schools and increased the number of independently run charter schools that can be created without union approval in Boston and other districts with the lowest standardized test scores.

“Portions of this bill we view as antiunion and anticollective bargaining,’’ said Thomas J. Gosnell, president of the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, the smaller of the two statewide teachers unions. “Collective bargaining is not the impediment to student achievement, and there is no data, no proof given to show that this is going to benefit kids. . . . We’re the most unionized state in the nation, and students in Massachusetts score number one in the country on national tests and we score number one in the world in science.’’

Over the course of the next eight months, the Globe will explore the lives of the major gubernatorial candidates through a series of “back stories’’ focused on their histories, records, and critical junctures in their journey to the campaign trail.