Richard Jolitz: Legislature and Unions must work with Communities

Richard Jolitz

In the early part of the twentieth century unions played a very important part in workers’ right and ensuring that employers did not take advantage of their workforce. They still have a role today to help protect workers and give them a voice in their workplace.  However, in the current extremely difficult economic climate, the unions, particularly the public sector unions, must realize that they might be about to kill the proverbial goose who lays the golden egg.

I work in a union shop in my everyday employment as an EMT.  I even became a Union Shop Steward to be a more active participant in protecting my fellow employees when in need but I also understand that as part of a union we, the workers, have to be willing to work with management to protect jobs.

Most of us have heard about the GIC debate and what seems to be a boon to local cities and towns and the bane of public employee unions.  The debate revolves around allowing cities and towns to move employees into the GIC insurance program outside collective bargaining.  This move would save cities and towns tens of millions of taxpayer dollars.  Admittedly, city and town employees would see changes to their coverage such as higher co-pays and premium costs but these changes would not be unlike what employees in the private sector have seen for the past several years. Everyone understands that the cost of health care is rising,and rising quickly.  The question becomes: is it the responsibility of the taxpayers to continue to shoulder increasing health benefit costs for public employees while also paying a larger share of their own healthcare costs as well?

The Massachusetts Taxpayer Foundation has estimated that the actual savings to the 351 communities moving into the GIC program would be 100 million dollars. For cities to take advantage of this program one of two things has to happen. First the unions have to agree to the move to GIC which they have not shown a willingness to do. The second is for the legislature to allow the cities and towns to move
their employees into this insurance outside collective bargaining by changing the current policy.  Union intransigence has made the former nearly impossible while, unfortunately and unbelievably, the recent state legislative session dropped the GIC issue again.  With 4% local aid cuts amounting to 160 million dollars coming for the fiscal year 2011, the failure of Beacon Hill to provide our cities and towns this much needed flexibility to achieve relief from mounting health care costs is a slap in the face to every taxpayer, not once, but twice.

The failure of Beacon Hill to provide relief and much needed local aid, along with the failure of public employee unions to insist on higher cost health plans, amounts to a self-inflicted 260 million dollar pot-hole in the road to financial stability.  Our cities and towns will not have these funds to provide other, much needed, services as the need to find cuts will continue.

As I drive through Danvers,the sign outside their fire station on Route 35 is hard to ignore.  The sign states that an engine company is out of service due to lack of manpower.  I’ve seen similar signs in other communities, which indicates to me that public safety may be compromised and the safety of those firefighters put at risk.  We need to look no further than Lawrence who recently laid off over 30 fire fighters to see where the cuts are coming to make up the shortfalls in budgets.

The city of Beverly is predicted to spend almost 2 million dollars more in the fiscal year that began July 1st and this entire sum is almost exactly the same as the total cost increase in health and benefits for city employees as reported on June 4, 2010, in the Salem News.  Read “Our View: Cities and Towns Drowning in Personnel Costs.”

It is high time for Beacon Hill to take responsible steps to make our communities stronger and better able to meet the fiscal issues that face them.  It is also high time for the public employee unions to realize that they have to have a part in ensuring that as well.  And the time for the taxpayers to see their hard earned dollars being used in a fiscally responsible manner is long past, something they have a chance to change this November.  The public employee unions have to do the same as private sector unions are doing, understand the need for change and shouldering more of their own expenses.

We are all in this together, it is about time we started acting like it.

[ed_note]This article originally appeared in the Salem News on July 21st.[/ed_note]

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