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Massachusetts Liberal

Observations on politics, the media and life in Massachusetts and beyond from the left side of the road.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Declaration of war?

Last week wasn't a good one for Deval Patrick -- even though he was sunning himself in Jamaica -- along with a state police protection unit. The repercussions from naming state Sen. Marian Walsh to a $175,000 job that had been vacant for a dozen years will only continue to echo around Beacon Hill.

But that may be viewed as a walk on the beach compared to Patrick's declaration that reform in the state's transportation infrastructure must accompany higher taxes, tolls and fares.

That stance has prompted public employee unions to go on red alert. To their mind, Patrick's proposals to eliminate MBTA pension perks and shift Mass. Turnpike Authority workers to a new agency without seniority rights amount to a declaration of war. So they're going first. AFL-CIO president Robert Haynes:
"I think the political implications are obvious. 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."
Or MBTA Carmen's Union boss Steve MacDougal:

"We understand that this economy and these difficult economic times are going to require, and should probably require, public employee unions to step up, But no one seems to be giving that a shot at the bargaining table," adding if the changes get "rammed" through, "we will view them as a declaration of war against working families in our bargaining unit."

Tough words aimed at a Democratic governor who is standing for re-election in less than two years.

But that inflamed rhetoric may be the exact political elixir Patrick needs to restore is ailing poll numbers.

Can anyone doubt that the public is fed up these days -- whether it is with Wall Street or government in general. People losing their jobs are more concerned with their own survival -- and the sight of taxpayer-paid employees making out better than them only exacerbates their concerns.

There's no question that making changes through the collective bargaining process is better than legislative fiat. But you need to look no farther than the Boston unions -- police, fire and teachers -- to understand why there is skepticism that anything will be accomplished through negotiations. Check out this newspaper editorial:

Even in our 24/7, blog-and-Twitter media world, commentators can barely seem to keep up with the worsening economic conditions. Before the ink was dry on the recent federal stimulus package, experts agreed that another will be necessary. Massachusetts's leaders have revised the state's tax-revenue projections downward, and downward again, and then down even further ...

The only people who seem oblivious to the scope of the problem are the do-nothing right-wing Republicans in Washington — and the greedy, stubborn municipal employees' unions of Boston.

The Herald? The Wall Street Journal? Some right-wing rag? Nope, the Boston Phoenix, aging like the rest of its boomer base for still fighting the lefty causes.

Taking on pension systems that enable workers to "retire" after 23 years and start a new career is going to win Patrick more friends than enemies in the current climate of shared sacrifice.

Memo to Messrs. Haynes and MacDougal: Want to steal the governor's thunder? Invite him to the table with a collective bargaining proposal to share in the reforms necessary to avoid job losses in your own ranks and spare your members higher fees, fares and tolls.

Take the first step and gain the political high ground. The public is demanding sacrifice. You can be a part of the solution and stand up for your members -- or you can be the sacrificial lambs.

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Anonymous Fever said...

I applaud you (Massachusetts Liberal) for finally standing up to greedy unions and supporting the kind of expense reform this state so desperately needs. Keep up the good fight. You make the Republican and Libertarian Party proud!

March 16, 2009 9:40 AM  
Blogger Daniel said...

It was inevitable that college-educated, largely white, Elsewhere-born professional types would eventually abandon support for all forms of organized labor. Many upper-middle-class Massachusetts liberals are primarily concerned with protecting their own wallets and their social liberties, which tendency is demonstrated by their quiet resistance to truly liberal ideas like creating a progressive income tax or consolidating school districts. "Shared sacrifice" indeed- like the tremendous sacrifice of AIG executives, or like the never-to-be-passed increase in the meals tax? The economic crisis allows everyone to use their online persona to pretend that they've suffered immensely and unduly, but surely with the unemployment rate at 8% or so most of our suburban professionals are doing just fine.

March 16, 2009 8:16 PM  
Blogger Outraged Liberal said...

Daniel, the problem with your analogy is that no one, not even college-educated, white, elsewhere-born professional types think AIG executives have sacrificed (whether they should be sacrificed is a separate question.)

Assuming for a second that I fit any or all of the categories you just named, you are also making a gross generalization about what sacrifices I may be making. As well as a gross generalization about suburban professionals.

The labor movement has a proud history and yes, I carried a union card at one point in my career and hung on to a job because of it.

I am not suggesting union members bear an unfair burden of what lies ahead -- in fact I was appalled by Congressional Republicans' efforts to bust the UAW as part of a bailout.

But I'm not greatly impressed by the negotiating stances I have seen so far from unions in Massachusetts -- particularly those that represent public employees.

March 16, 2009 8:37 PM  
Blogger Daniel said...

Ok- thank you for the polite response to my rant. One thing: a notable exception to the wage freeze stalemate was AFSCME, where members make an average of $43,000. Their sacrifice was not mentioned in the Phoenix piece. Perhaps if Menino made the same guarantee to the other unions (no layoffs if you agree to the freeze), perhaps while insisting on a 50% reduction in police overtime expenditures and demanding some needee modifications of the pension/ disability system, they might be more amenable to the idea. Please see the Globe's piece today on budgetary murkiness and "rainy day" reserves- I think layoffs can be avoided.

March 16, 2009 10:54 PM  
Anonymous Fever said...


Careful, it’s never wise to bite the hand the feeds you. It’s all those professionals subjected to the full brunt of the tax system that have enabled public employees to retire after only 23 years on the job (just one of countless benefits public employees receive that are not a part of the private sector). And of the millions of people added to the ranks of the unemployed guess what percentage was because of public sector job cuts? The answer is zero, sorry, Government actually added jobs since the recession began. Think about it, if things were really so bad for union members, why don’t they just disband?

March 16, 2009 11:23 PM  
Blogger John said...

Boston Carmen's Union President Steve MacDougall had this to say in his testimony before the Joint Transportation Committee last week:

"we recognize that many believe that our members retire too soon. And we understand that the Governor and the Legislature are determined to change that. But, we also think that if the intention is lower benefit costs, it is important to consider that the MBTA pension liability is less costly then it would be if the Chapter 32 vesting and benefit provisions are applied (note: Chapter 32 is the state employee pension system). In short, the MBTA Retirement Fund is less costly and better funded.

This is primarily due to the fact that the vast majority of MBTA Retirement Fund members are NOT eligible for any type of retirement benefit until they reach 23 years of service, and only then at 57% of base pay.

Conversely, the State incurs liability for all its employee members after 10 years of service.

I am here to pledge that the Carmen's Union will continue to work in good faith with elected officials to help solve the agency's financial problems. But workers need to be dealt with fairly and our concerns need to be heard".

Sounds to me like the Carmen's Union is wiling to work through collective bargaining but the Gov and the Legislature have to be willing to actually bargain.

March 18, 2009 2:28 PM  

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