Deval’s dance with labor

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  December 13, 2006

Government employees, beware
Kirwan’s history, particularly as a Republican-administration negotiator with Massport’s employees, is of special concern to government-employee associations. Its members are conspicuously absent from the transition team’s relevant working groups: there are no teachers’ union reps on the K-12 education group; the local-government group consists exclusively of mayors — i.e., the management end of municipal labor-management negotiations; and the transportation group has none of the many unions representing the MBTA and MTA employees.

This might suggest that Patrick intends to pressure those unions, including the notoriously recalcitrant teachers, into accepting some major changes.

For the past 16 years, their self-protective unions and our openly hostile governors have barely spoke, let alone seriously negotiated. Meanwhile, labor and its related costs — health care and pensions in particular — are soaring in state and municipal budgets; and reform stalls in education, public works, the courts, and other areas.

If Patrick and his inner circle have concluded that true reform requires concessions from these groups, he might just be in a position to accomplish it — in a “Nixon opening China” way, as one labor insider says.

That’s because these labor groups have been able to hold sway over the Democrats in the legislature, who have expressed no interest in helping the Republican governors paint the unions as the problem — and no difficulty dismissing those arguments as Republican rhetoric.

But if Democrat Deval Patrick, with his landslide victory, says that the unions need to make concessions in the name of reform, it will be hard for legislators to oppose him — without looking like they’ve been bought and paid for themselves.

Whether this reflects Patrick’s thinking is, at this point, pure conjecture. We’ll know much more after he unveils his cabinet appointments.

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