Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Union counter-proposal on health insurance falls woefully short

It’s hard not to think “fox in the chicken coop” in response to the public workers union proposal that, if the union were to agree to receiving its health insurance coverage through the state’s Group Insurance Commission (GIC), the union would want half the seats on the GIC board. They already have four of 15 seats. What are they smoking?

AFL-CIO president Robert Haynes, in offering a “spirit of cooperation,” also said the union would want employees to get half the $120 million the cities and towns would otherwise achieve in savings if public workers were to be covered by the GIC. He also wants to give the unions 45 days to come up with a better insurance plan design, after which everything would be submitted to binding arbitration, a recipe for interminable delay and equivocation.

All of which explains why the legislature must approve giving cities and towns the power to design their own employee health insurance plans or join the GIC without union approval.

Our local communities are in dire straits. Rising health insurance premiums are eating up their budgets, and more layoffs are inevitable if they can’t regain control over their health benefits.

Mayor Menino laid it out in no uncertain terms before the legislature yesterday. In the last decade, health insurance costs have more than doubled. (It’s 150 percent statewide, according to the Mass Municipal Association.) The hike has been five times larger than that for other items in the budget. Boston now spends more on health insurance than on its entire police department! That’s jaw-dropping!

Menino has been a real stand-up guy on this issue, asking for the legislature to approve a home rule petition if statewide change is not approved. His willingness to take the lead probably helped push Governor Patrick to get with the program. (In Patrick’s first term, he had pushed successfully to allow local communities to join the GIC with 70 percent approval of the unions. Such a threshold is ridiculously high, which is why of the 351 cities and towns in the state, only a scant two dozen have done so.)

Leaving veto power over insurance plan design in the hands of the unions makes no sense. Workers in the private sector don’t get that. Their employers decide based on a range of financial considerations. The fact is that local taxpayers can no longer afford to pay for benefits for public workers that they don’t have for themselves. And, if municipalities can’t manage employee insurance costs, both municipal employees and local residents will pay another way, by losing services through resulting layoffs. As Menino said at the hearing, “Pretty soon we’re not going to have City Hall; it’ll be the city insurance company.”

There’s something very wrong with that.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.


  1. Well, technically, some private workers can and do have the power to bargain with their employers over their healthcare package -- the unionized ones. My father is a steelworker, and negotiations over health care is a huge part of every contract re-up.

    Yes, I realize that's only about 7% of workers these days. But the question in my mind remains: should we aspire to better working conditions (including pay, benefits, retirement, time off, etc) for all workers, or should we play the lowest common denominator game, and focus our energies on bringing down those who have organized to gain better conditions?

    Personally, I'd rather see a society where workers have higher salaries, better benefits, and decent vacation/sick time policies. (Toss in better maternity/paternity leave while we're at it.)

    So to me, instead of continuing to pull out that tired old chestnut, "Workers in the private sector don't get that" to decry every benefit public sector workers have fought for and won, why don't we start questioning why more private sector workers "don't get that."