Massachusetts’ Collective Bargaining Law: A Worry for the Obama Administration?

It’s not easy being a governor or state legislator these days. With states facing deep budget deficits, state lawmakers around the nation are working to close their budget gaps by tackling one of the biggest costs they face: government employee compensation. As we saw in Wisconsin (and to a lesser extent in Ohio), Republican lawmakers who take on the government employee union lobby can expect an all-out backlash from it.

But it’s not just Republicans. Some Democratic state elected officials are also trying to close their own states’ budget gaps. While public employee unions have not been as vocal in their opposition to Blue Team-proposed cuts, Democrats depend on campaign support from unions in a way Republicans do not, so alienating those unions could prove costly politically — at least in theory.

That’s difficult enough, but now it appears that Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, a Democrat, recently had to deal with the Obama administration on this issue. The Boston Globe reported this week:

The White House took the unusual step this spring of calling Governor Deval Patrick to discuss his plan to curb the collective bargaining rights of public employees, an indication that the Obama administration may have been concerned about the potential for national political fallout.

Deficits bear no party label; they are as much of a problem for Democrat as well as Republican politicians. However, such walking-on-eggshells caution underscores the political minefield Democratic elected officials must navigate if they are serious about getting their states’ finances in order: Endorse policies that are certain to anger one of their most powerful constituencies. Such caution is also significant in light of the fact that, as my colleague Trey Kovacs and I note in the current issue of Labor Watch, Massachusetts’ collective bargaining curbs are fairly modest:

The Massachusetts proposal would limit collective bargaining over health benefits. While it doesn’t go as far as proposals by Republican lawmakers in other states, the fact that the bill is proposed by Democrats makes it politically significant.

Bolder reforms likely would send blue-state unions to the barricades. It’s no wonder some union chiefs, like AFL-CIO head Richard Trumka are angry at Democrats for not doing more for them. But, as loudly as Trumka and his colleagues may complain, politically, they have nowhere else to go — which makes a statement by a university professor quoted by the Globe ring hollow.

“What was going on in places like Wisconsin and Ohio were strong talking points for the president and the Democratic Party going into the next election: that the Republicans want to take away your collective bargaining rights,’’ said Raymond J. La Raja, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts. “So any indication that there were Democrats loosening collective bargaining rights undermined that message.’’

Those may be “strong talking points” for the Democratic Party’s labor activist base, not for the majority of taxpayers who must bear the costs of the generous government employee compensation that public sector collective bargaining engenders.

For more on public sector unions, see here. For more on their growing rift with Democrats, see here and here.