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Keep the pressure on

As a follow-up to my torches and pitchforks post yesterday on the runaway health care costs that are likely to bankrupt Massachusetts cities and towns, here's the conclusion of the story in today's Boston Globe.  This article talks about the political issues involved in changing these laws, as well as the history of how we got into this mess.

The problem started when health care costs were relatively low.  Giving health care benefits seemed like a nice perk for municipal jobs, and the costs were not prohibitive.  Later, the state set some limits on how much of the premium a town could pay, but this limit became the benchmark for unions to reach.  And, at some point, health care benefits became retirement benefits, but they kicked in after 10 years of service and, unlike pensions, were fully paid and could start being used as soon as someone left their job and not at age 55.

These changes largely came during collective bargaining between the towns and unions.  As budgets get tight, these negotiations get tougher, and gains won long ago are tough to give back.  But, it's time for the unions to take ownership for fixing their fair share of our cities and towns fiscal problems.  One first step would be for the unions to agree to let their municipal employees join the state insurance plan, GIC, as Governor Patrick has proposed.  The Globe article details the savings, and the GIC plan is still very generous compared to insurance plans offered by private employers.  There's no hardship there.  Just reality.

The article also mentions that there are some bills in the state legislature that are attempting to clamp down on this, including letting cities and towns make changes to their health insurance without going through collective bargaining.  This seems like a great idea if the unions are not reasonable.  But, these bills seem to be unlikely to pass.  So, find out who your state represenative and senator are and send them an email.  I did this last night, and was happy to find that Governor Patrick has made this change part of his plan to get the cities and towns healthier.  We need the legislature to do something about it.  If not, I'm all in favor of voting them out.  I hope you are listening Senator Fargo and Representative Murphy!  (they represent me in Bedford).

I consider myself a left-leaning independent.  Some may call that a Democrat, but strong sympathy for unions is something that Democrats believe in that I don't.  I think that unions have a place, and certainly in the early 1900s they were essential to get good working conditions for employees.  But, now unions and management have such antagonistic positions that they are counterproductive.  It's particularly tough for municipal employers.  If they take a hard stand against their unions, they could have police, fire fighters, and teachers striking.  That's quite unpopular.  So, these unions need to show some leadership by helping their employers manage their costs to keep their jobs secure for the long-term.  It could be a fair bargain to promise some higher level of job security in order to get these costs under control.

Would you be willing to let these municipal employees go on strike in order to force the issue on health care costs?  That could be pretty chaotic, but unless the legislature can break the unions' positions on this, we may have little choice.

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