With public employee unions coming under increasing pressure nationwide, few governors have been as outspoken in their support of labor rights as Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick.
In the past two weeks, Patrick has appeared at a Statehouse rally backing embattled Wisconsin public union workers and has defended collective bargaining rights when quizzed by reporters.
Patrick even credited public unions with helping Massachusetts rein in spending during the recession by agreeing to wage concessions and furlough days.
“I am outspokenly supportive of collective bargaining and the right to organize and am proud of the fact that labor, although we don't agree on everything, has been at the table for some important reforms we have been able to move,” he said last week.
Labor, in return, has backed Patrick, spending millions to help him win a second term and deploying volunteers to get voters to the polls on Election Day.
That has led to charges that Patrick, a Democrat, may be a little too close to unions, particularly when compared to his Republican predecessor and potential GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
“I think overall he is too cozy. I think he owes the governor of Wisconsin a thank-you note because it’s given him more leverage to say, ‘Look how reasonable I am,’” said House Republican Leader Brad Jones, referring to Wisconsin's Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who is trying to strip public workers of collective bargaining rights.
“I don’t think (Patrick) should shy away from being adversarial when it’s ultimately in the best interest of the taxpayers,” added Jones, R-North Reading.
One test of Patrick’s relationship with unions is his push to require cities and towns to either join the state’s Group Insurance Commission or institute a program with equivalent savings. The bill would also require cities and towns to move eligible municipal retirees into Medicare.
Patrick said the proposal will help cities and town curb soaring health care costs while giving labor “a meaningful role in developing the solution.”
Union officials say they appreciate their ability to talk directly to Patrick and top administrative officials, even if they don’t always see eye to eye.
“These are pretty difficult times and we’ve had access and we appreciate the comments he's made about collective bargaining,” said Massachusetts AFL-CIO President Robert Haynes, whose union represents about 400,000 workers.
Massachusetts Teachers Association President Paul Toner was equally enthusiastic.
According to the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance, the MTA spent $2.75 million to support Patrick's re-election last year.
“Unlike other governors across the country, including Gov. Walker, Gov. Patrick gives labor a voice at the table,” Toner said. “Why do people believe everything needs to be adversarial instead of sitting down and working through things together in a professional, cordial manner?”
Brian Gilmore of the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, which represents 7,000 employers, said Patrick has to “walk a fine line” to balance collective bargaining rights with the fiscal pressures the state has faced in recent years.
Those pressures aren’t letting up any time soon.
Although revenues have begun to tick up slightly, Massachusetts still faces a projected $1.5 billion spending gap for the fiscal year that begins July 1, meaning another round of belt-tightening is necessary. The state also has a hefty pension and health care burden.
In some ways, Massachusetts has fared better than other states. In December, the state’s unemployment rate was 8.2 percent, well below the national rate of 9.4 percent.
There are efforts in Massachusetts to curb some of the power of public sector unions.
Rep. Daniel Winslow has filed a bill that would preserve what he called traditional collective bargaining topics like wages, hours and working conditions while giving management more control over the use of part-time workers instead of paying overtime.
“When you have almost 10 percent of your people unemployed and you’re paying a 50 percent premium for overtime pay, that simply doesn’t make fiscal sense,” said Winslow, R-Wrentham.
Some union officials say their affinity with Patrick goes beyond his willingness to listen. They say that after growing up poor in Chicago, Patrick has an ability to connect emotionally with working men and women.
“Gov. Patrick has a lot of empathy with people who have to work for a living,” said Harris Gruman, executive director of the SEIU Massachusetts State Council, which has also supported Patrick and represents about 25,000 public employees.
“Negotiating with him is exactly the right kind of hard process,” he said.
Unions representing state and municipal workers are offering their own proposal to help cut the soaring cost of health care spending, which threatens the budgets of Massachusetts cities and towns.
The coalition of unions, including the Massachusetts Teachers Association and Massachusetts AFL-CIO, said the plan would save an estimated $120 million in the first year. The plan calls for half of the savings to go back to workers for health care. More »
Unions have pumped more than $1.3 million into the fight against a statewide ballot question designed to lower Massachusetts sales tax rate from 6.25 percent to 3 percent.
The bulk of the money has come from teachers unions, including more than $560,000 from the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the state's largest teachers union, and another half million dollars from the National Education Association. More »