Union negotiations and health care benefits

Next week my bargaining unit will have an all employee meeting to prepare for bargaining for a new contract.  Our current contract, like a lot of city contracts, ends September 30.  So what will be the most contentious issues:  Wages and Health Care.

Last year, we narrowly voted to support the Mayor by putting off a scheduled 2.5% raise what was to be effective at the beginning of the current contract year.  What will happen to that raise?  We gave up money under the general threat of layoffs – a ridiculous proposition in my unit which is about 95% federally funded and with stimulus funds to hand out, we are swimming in money compared to general funded agencies like the libraries, police and  schools.  The teachers and police, by the way, voted against a freeze and no one was laid off – at least not yet.  I judge our changes of getting any kind of COLA to be slim to none – except maybe that elusive 2.5%.

So that leaves health care benefits.  I admit we do have a great deal.  The employee paid part is low and the co-pays small but it does cost the city a bundle.   This is a chart from the Boston Globe.

Looking at the chart it makes sense that we would agree to joing GIC.  And certainly retirees whould join Medicaid.  (My bargaining unit agreed to that last year for future retirees.)  But here are the political problems.

Sean Murphy, in his series of Globe articles, writes

Public employee unions are leery of changes to municipal health care plans.

Brad Tenney, secretary-treasurer of the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts, an umbrella group of local unions, said his members are willing to “sit down with leaders on Beacon Hill and in the municipalities to reach a meeting of the minds.’’

“We recognize the significant cost of health care,’’ he said. “But we feel it is unfair to look at health insurance in a vacuum. Members gave up pay raises or accepted smaller pay raises through the years for the health care benefits they have.’’

Public employee unions and retiree groups, which make generous donations to the treasuries of many state officer-holders, are well-connected on Beacon Hill.

In brief interviews on Monday, House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray expressed little desire to strip union employees of long-held collective bargaining rights. Murray also said she did not believe the GIC was capable of accepting cities and towns without increasing its staff.

The GIC provides health insurance for about 300,000 state employees, retirees, and elected officials, including employees and retirees of numerous independent authorities. State law allows the GIC to adjust the amounts subscribers pay in premiums and copayments without union negotiations.

I think that last sentence is at the heart of why a lot of unions, including mine, are reluctant to endorse the move to GIC, but I think it will be a big part of the bargaining this year.  I also think Tenney has it right that health insurance isn’t something to be looked at in a vacuum.  I was on the bargaining team last round and we worked very hard to make sure that the combination of wage increases and health care costs did not result in a negative amount for any employees.

Kevin Cullen sums it all up in his column in the Sunday Globe

In the case of cities and towns, we taxpayers are the owners, and we’ve got no gun. Taxes come out of a spigot we can’t shut off. And if we don’t pay taxes, we’ll be escorted to jail by some guy whose health plan we’re paying for. The idea that taxpayers are forced to underwrite health care plans that the vast majority of us can only dream about is more than galling.

But aside from being good doobies, and in some cases averting layoffs, what’s the incentive for the unions to give up their benefits?

Before you go bashing the unions, which is irresistible in this case, would you, short of having that gun to your head, give up benefits?

After Murphy’s stories ran, the Boston Foundation put out a report saying that the only way we can stave off the financial ruin of many cities and towns is for the Legislature to stand up to the vested interests and change the law, forcing municipal employees to shoulder more of their health care costs. The report also urged mayors and other municipal executives to force retirees onto Medicare at 65.

So the financial solvency of many cities and towns rests on the premise that politicians will do the right, as opposed to the expedient, thing by going after two of the most politically active demographic groups in the state, the unions and retirees.

God help us.

Murphy’s stories have caused understandable anger. But they should also cause everybody to pick up the phone and tell the pols in Washington they have to put aside the ridiculous charade that has passed for debate and produce something that will improve the way health care gets doled out and, just as important, rein in runaway costs.

It is hard to say what will happen with municipal unions.  I have a feeling that since we can’t strike, we will be working without a contract for a while.  But there is some hope.  The workers from one of the largest supermarket chains have announced just a short while ago that a strike had been avoided.

Grocery workers this morning approved a new contract with Stop & Shop Supermarket Co., ending months of tense negotiations and averting a threatened strike.

A day after reaching a tentative agreement with the supermarket chain, some 2,000 union members agreed to a three-year deal that will boost wages and preserve benefits, said a spokesman for the area branch of the United Food and Commercial Workers.

“Through the hard work of negotiators, we were able to reach an agreement that maintained our great health and pension benefits and provided general wage increases,” said Jim Carvalho, a spokesman for UFCW Local 1445, which represents 36,000 Stop & Shop employees in southern New England.

So maybe there is hope.  And the bottom line is everyone should have access to the kind of benefits government workers have.

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