The vote to take away public employee health care bargaining rights took place thirty minutes before midnight, on April 26th, while most of the state slept, oblivious to the event. The scene would have brought a big smile to the face of Wisconsin’s Republican Governor Scott Walker. But this wasn’t Madison. This was Boston, and the protagonists weren’t members of the GOP, but the Democratic House leadership in allegedly progressive Massachusetts.
By a margin of 111-42, the House of Representatives voted to take away negotiating rights from municipal unions in determining key aspects of their health care benefits. Following powerful Democratic Speaker Robert A. DeLeo’s wishes, about two-thirds of the overwhelmingly Democratic majority of the House voted in the affirmative, along with thirty of the thirty-two Republicans in the chamber. The bill now goes on to the Democratically controlled Senate, where a yes vote will bring it to the Democratic Governor Deval Patrick, who supports the basic health care changes.
True, the bill doesn’t end collective bargaining as we know it, doesn’t go nearly as far as Republican governors and legislatures have gone in the Midwest to attack public employee unions, but the fact that it was the Democrats leading the charge in Massachusetts, of all places, highlights the fact that nothing can be taken for granted in this era of scapegoating government workers for budgetary problems. In state after state, and at the Federal level, escalating health care costs are blamed on the benefits that workers negotiated, while the lightly regulated and highly profitable insurance companies and pharmaceutical corporations are ignored. Noting a broader context, a leading opponent of the April 26th anti-union vote, Massachusetts House Democrat Martin J. Walsh, phrased it this way: “[Municipal workers are] not the ones who caused the financial crisis. Banks and investment companies got a slap on the wrist for their wrongdoing, but public employees are losing their benefits.”
Mindful of the strong public employee union support that brought him victories in two elections so far, Governor Patrick somewhat defensively proclaimed, “This is not Wisconsin. That’s not what the House did. I’m not going to sign a Wisconsin-type bill in the end.” No, it’s not yet Wisconsin, but while the Democrats chip away at worker-won rights, it only makes it easier for Republicans to go for the jugular. At the state, as on the Federal level, the bipartisan narrative grows that the deficit is our biggest crisis which can only be solved by cutting programs that service the poor and the working class.
An alternative to cutting programs and services, of course, is raising revenue, but there is no Democratic push in Massachusetts to capturing the more than $300 million in revenue which the state loses every year because of tax breaks to huge corporations like Raytheon and Fidelity Investments. Nor does Governor Patrick or the Democratic leadership in the legislature even discuss the possibility of shifting to a progressive state income tax, one that would be fairer and bring in more funds to the state than the current flat tax.
I’ve attended two rallies for public employees in the last couple of months in Western Massachusetts, one in Springfield and the other in North Adams. In both cases, the crowds enthusiastically cheered speaker after speaker who condemned the actions of Wisconsin’s Scott Walker and Republican attempts to eviscerate worker rights. It didn’t matter whether the speaker was a union leader or a Democratic official, the message was the same. We have to stand up for the gains of the union movement and stop the GOP onslaught. At the April 4th “We Are One” rally at North Adams’ City Hall, newly-elected House member Gailanne Cariddi promised to support local workers at the capital in Boston. “I am there to be your voice and don’t let me forget that.” Twenty-two days later, at 11:30 in the evening, Cariddi had indeed forgotten that as she joined 80 of her Democratic colleagues in voting to restrict municipal employee bargaining rights.
A big question that remains is whether organized labor and its members will remember the anti-union votes taken by the candidates that they supported with their hard work and dollars. Will those candidates be challenged in primaries? In the general election? In a nation where it is virtually impossible for a third party to win an election, what will the poor and working class do when faced with a choice between two parties that increasingly speak the same language and offer the same alternatives? If Governor Walker’s move to end collective bargaining for most government employees in Wisconsin served as a wake-up call for unions nation-wide, will the Massachusetts House vote of April 26th serve to remind us that having a capital “D” next to your name is no guarantee that a vote for working class interests will follow?