Similar stories have played out this year in jurisdictions across the nation. Cities and towns, in the face of serious budget constraints, have repeatedly pushed for legal relief that would enable them to decrease the burden of public employees’ and retirees’ health care costs. On the other side of the issue, public employee unions have battled to protect the benefits they believe their members have earned through their collective bargaining rights. Earlier this year in Wisconsin, for instance, the battle reached a pitched level and grabbed national headlines. However, in Massachusetts, key players managed to come to a compromise that neither side loves, but which both agree will likely provide fiscal relief.
We asked Geoffrey Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, and Paul Toner, president of Massachusetts Teachers Association, for their respective insights into these fiscal circumstances, why the compromise is acceptable and what lessons were learned.
According to Geoffrey C. Beckwith, the Bay State’s new law addressing municipal health care costs “will enable its cities and towns to save as much as $100 million a year by allowing localities to change the design of their employee and retiree health plans. … Many will say that Massachusetts demonstrated reasonableness and moderation, rejecting the militant anti-union policies of Wisconsin and Ohio. This is certainly accurate. But that’s how the reform passed. Why the reform passed is more important: taxpayers cannot afford unsustainable employee benefits.”
Massachusetts Unions Shape Compromise For State’s Municipal Health Insurance Law
Paul Toner writes: “The new municipal health insurance law … represents a compromise forged during very challenging fiscal times. The process was difficult and sometimes contentious, but it never devolved into an angry ideological standoff like those seen in so many other states and in Washington, D.C. … A key lesson for the unions is this: Even if our members didn’t cause this fiscal crisis, the crisis is upon us, and we have to be part of the solution. … We defended our principles while being able to offer solutions. In the end, neither the unions nor the municipalities got everything they wanted. That’s what genuine negotiations look like.”