MASSACHUSETTS GOVERNMENT is almost a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Democratic Party, so there was no chance that a law limiting collective bargaining for municipal employees would resemble the recent laws passed in Wisconsin and Ohio. The measure approved this week by Governor Deval Patrick and the state Legislature will hold down the cost of providing health benefits to teachers, firefighters, and other local workers by modestly curbing their unions' right to veto changes to employee health plans. For the ultrablue Bay State, that was a notable accomplishment. But it was hardly the "Union Busting, Massachusetts Style," that a Wall Street Journal headline hopefully predicted back in April.
The new laws in Wisconsin and Ohio prohibit collective bargaining over public-sector pensions and health benefits, and allow government employees to opt out of paying any union dues or fees. The Wisconsin law requires annual re-certification of all public employee unions; in Ohio, negotiated wage increases will have to be approved by voters if they would result in higher taxes. Nothing that sweeping was ever on the table in Massachusetts. Government unions may no longer have quite as much clout on Beacon Hill as they used to, but they still have enough to make Democrats think twice about confronting them.
No surprise, then, that the collective bargaining changes ultimately adopted were watered down significantly from the version approved by the state House of Representatives in April. That House vote reflected public sentiment -- a majority of Massachusetts voters believe government unions have too much power -- but in the face of union outrage, policymakers quickly promised to protect the unions' "seat at the table" and "meaningful voice" in setting health benefits for government employees. In April, the head of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO vowed to "fight this thing to the bitter end." This week, he happily acknowledged that the final language preserved "all we ever wanted, [which] was to have a voice."