MTA members lobby for fairness on municipal health care

“We are not the bad guys,” said Jane Leo, an elementary teacher in Brookline. “Teachers are not the bad guys.”

Leo, like hundreds of her fellow educators, wanted to remind legislators of that fundamental truth on April 28 as part of the MTA’s multi-pronged lobbying effort to protect municipal employees’ collective bargaining rights over health insurance.

The lobbying effort started as a trickle in the middle of the day as retirees arrived in Boston. The numbers picked up as school let out and buses pulled up next to the State House, disgorging members who first stopped at MTA headquarters to pick up their bright yellow T-shirts and instructions.

By early evening, more than 700 MTA members were roaming the halls of the State House asking their senators not to follow the lead of the House in gutting their bargaining rights. They also stopped by the House to thank representatives who voted with the MTA and others in the public employee coalition on the issue – and to express their disappointment in those who didn’t.

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“I’m here to protect our rights,” said Canton teacher Nancy Flood. “People have worked hard for years to gain – and maintain – these rights, and we are going in the wrong direction.”
 
MTA President Paul Toner, MTA Vice President Tim Sullivan and MTA Executive Director-Treasurer Ann Clarke were on hand to rally the members, as were a number of members of the association’s staff.

Toner praised the turnout and called the event “a prime example of grassroots activism, as envisioned in the MTA Strategic Action Plan.”

“This really shows what our members will do when their values, their principles and their profession are under attack,” Toner said. “Collective bargaining is at the heart of workers’ rights in our democracy, and it also plays a big role in the success of our public education system.

“Massachusetts students are number one for a reason,” he continued. “We need to attract high-quality educators to our public education system and keep them in the profession. The working and learning conditions produced by collective bargaining play a key role in that effort.”

Toner noted that the unions’ efforts on municipal health insurance are centered on protecting retirees and the very sick, which can best be accomplished by ensuring that current employees and retirees have a voice in the process of determining their medical plans. He also pointed out that the unions have offered a proposal that would save towns and cities $100 million in health care costs, the same amount as the House plan, while preserving collective bargaining.

MTA members came to Boston to lobby from all across the state, and they were joined by colleagues from AFT Massachusetts for the “Education Day” event. Those who went to the State House were positive about the experience.

 “It felt very productive,” MTA Retired member Claire Naughton said after she returned to MTA headquarters to report back on her lobbying efforts. “I have never seen so many people I knew at the State House in my life.”

The Senate has generally taken a more positive view toward the unions’ position that cost-shifting can take place, but that employees should have a chance to negotiate over how changes unfold.

The unions have two other major “asks” – that some of the savings be dedicated to reducing costs for very sick employees who have high out-of-pocket expenses and that retirees have a seat at the table through Section 19 coalition bargaining. A key goal is to protect the vulnerable from having to choose between medical care and food or housing.

The Senate is expected to take up its budget, including the health care measure, in mid-May. After the Senate acts, the budget will go to a conference committee and then to Governor Deval Patrick, who has stated that public employees need a meaningful voice in health care decisions and that he will not sign a “Wisconsin-type” bill.

There were bound to be more difficult conversations than “thanks yous” on the House side of the building during the lobby day, since state representatives voted 113-42 on April 26 for a plan that gives municipalities the unfettered right to increase copayments and deductibles to the GIC benefit level or require municipal employees to join the GIC.

“I never thought a Democratic House would pass anti-collective-bargaining legislation in this state,” said retired Everett educator Richard Liston. “It’s one thing when you hear about it in Alabama or Mississippi but it’s another thing here in Massachusetts. It’s just going to spread like wildfire across the country. If this is what the Democrats did to the union, it just gives carte blanche to Republicans to carry the ball even further.”

Members who spoke with their representatives or their aides reported back that Speaker of the House Robert DeLeo had put a lot of pressure on them to vote against the union-backed amendment sponsored by state Representatives Marty Walsh and Jim O’Day. They also took a lot of heat from municipal leaders, who have been lobbying for control over health care plan design for several years.

But there were good news stories, as well. Retiree Jackie Coogan reported that Rep. Paul Brodeur had not initially supported the Walsh-O'Day amendment, but in the end voted with the unions after hearing from many active and retired teachers.

“He did the right thing,” she said. “He really came through for us. We were really pleased.”

 

   Lobby Day

  Lobby Day Photos


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