Dot delegation split on union health proposals

The state House of Representatives voted Tuesday night to limit some collective bargaining rights for unions negotiating health care plans with municipal governments, defeating an alternative proposal backed by labor officials and spearheaded by Rep. Martin Walsh (D-Dorchester).

In a 111-42 vote, the House approved a compromise proposal offered by Speaker Robert DeLeo and other House leaders. Walsh’s plan, in the form of an amendment to the House’s budget plan for 2012, would have preserved limited collective bargaining power for municipal worker unions and provided for blind arbitration proceedings to settle disputes.

DeLeo’s compromise changed what was initially offered as part of the House version of the state budget, limiting collective bargaining on health care to a 30-day period, at the end of which the municipalities’ managers’ plans would go into effect if no agreement had been reached. The speaker’s compromise also increased workers’ opportunities to share in the cost-savings generated by the new health plans.

Walsh, who is chairman of the House Ethics Committee and a top labor official as the secretary-treasurer and general agent of the Boston Building Trades Council, spoke on the floor in defense of his amendment prior to the vote: “Financial companies got slapped on the wrist for all their wrongdoing, while public employees are losing their benefits,” he said.

When asked by a reporter earlier in the evening if his amendment had been filed in his role as a union leader or as a representative of Dorchester, Walsh said that he was acting as a representative.

“I think it’s a bigger issue than Dorchester. It’s an issue that deals with the entire state-municipal workers around the state,” he said outside the House chamber. “What we’re looking at is allowing them a voice to help design a plan. I think the unions have been more than fair here.”

The vote enraged union officials, who promised political consequence as a result of the vote. “There’s a class war going on this country and today the Massachusetts House sided against the middle class,” said Ed Kelly, president of the Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts and a Dorchester resident, after the vote.

Just before the tally was taken, Rep. Linda Dorcena Forry (D-Dorchester) praised Walsh’s amendment, but said she would support the DeLeo plan. “For me, the way I look at it is that this is … just the beginning,” she said just before the vote.

Forry, who is married to Reporter managing editor Bill Forry, said that there would be further opportunities to strengthen the plan when the Senate and Gov. Deval Patrick weigh in on the issue.

“Obviously [DeLeo’s plan is] not the compromise the unions wanted to see in the end,” she said. “This is the initial step in trying to tackle the issue of health care cost.” Forry added that she hopes to be involved with ongoing negotiations over the proposal and is trying to make sure unions still have collective bargaining “room at the table.”

State Rep. Carlos Henriquez, who represents parts of Dorchester and Roxbury, co-sponsored Walsh’s amendment, but voted instead to adopt DeLeo’s compromise, one of several to do so.

Before the vote, Henriquez told the Reporter that he was not fully behind Walsh’s proposal, saying he hoped the amendment would change during the debate and that the language of Walsh’s original amendment would soften as lawmakers worked for a compromise.

“I hope the amendment gets all the parties to the table for a middle ground,” Henriquez said. The purpose of the debate over collective bargaining, Henriquez added, is not to “break the backs of municipalities,” but to reach a compromise.

South Boston Rep. Nick Collins, also a co-sponsor of Walsh’s amendment, voted against adopting DeLeo’s compromise plan. State Rep. Russell Holmes, a Mattapan Democrat, voted in favor of DeLeo’s compromise.

Henriquez said he is scheduled to meet next week with officials from Mayor Thomas Menino’s administration to discuss health care payment reform options for the city. The freshman representative said that during his first budget process, he and his staff had adopted some best practices from more veteran lawmakers about how to keep up with the hundreds of budget amendments and votes. Henriquez said his priorities in the budget debate are on the twenty amendments he has co-sponsored, which include proposals for funding summer jobs, adult day care, and public health initiatives.

“What we’ve recognized is that unfortunately, because of the cost of health insurance, a very large percentage of the monies we commit are … going to fund municipal health insurance,” said House Ways and Means Chair Brian Dempsey (D-Haverhill), according to the State House News Service. “Now, that’s not anyone’s fault. We’re not blaming anyone for the rise in health insurance. But, it’s a fact, it’s a fact. The cost of health insurance is going up, and the money we commit every year, it’s unfortunately not going to textbooks. It’s not going to classroom size. Unfortunately, it’s going to a large degree to fund municipal health insurance.”

Material from the State House News Service was used in this report.