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As protests over the role of public sector labor unions heat up across the country, a panel of experts, including Dorchester State Representative Martin Walsh, took part in a discussion of how the collective bargaining system works in Massachusetts.
The Harvard Kennedy School’s Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston hosted last Wednesday’s panel, which in addition to Walsh, featured state Transportation Secretary Jeffrey Mullan and MIT professor Thomas Kochan. Mullan represented the "management" viewpoint, while Walsh, in his capacity as the president of the Boston Building Trades Council, spoke on behalf of the unions.
Much of the discussion focused on the labor negotiations surrounding the consolidation of several state transportation entities into the unified Massachusetts Department of Transportation (DOT). Referred to by the panelists as the "grand bargain," the agreement between the state and labor allowed several labor organizations, sometimes with overlapping jurisdictions, to form groups to better negotiate with management.
Consolidating many of the transportation agencies would have resulted in “draconian wage cuts” between the former Highway and Turnpike departments, Kochan said.
A 1,500-member strong coalition of unions banded together to negotiate with Mullan and agreed to move beyond issues of jurisdiction and find compromise. Kochan said the groups’ breakthrough came in the form of an equity fund that aligned the interests of both parties and opened the way for an agreement.
Mullan called the negotiations "fairly ugly and at times extremely personal."
Walsh said he did not support the consolidating because the bill lacked language that would have protected unions, but he worked with legislative, union and transportation officials to move negotiations forward.
Protests in Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker has moved to eliminate mandatory collective bargaining for public sector unions, have reverberated across the nation and brought the matter of collective bargaining to the top of the political agenda in many states.
The day before Walsh took part in the Harvard panel, he appeared at a pro-union rally held outside the State House. When asked by the State House News Service if there could be a threat to collective bargaining rights in Massachusetts, Walsh said no.
"We [in Massachusetts] support people, middle class Americans, who go to work everyday. We support then. The unions negotiate contracts like it’s supposed to be done," Walsh said. "Most of the time here on Beacon Hill the Legislature and the Governor... will work with the labor unions," Walsh added.
"What’s happening in Wisconsin is so disrespectful for working class people," Walsh said.
Walsh added that Tea Party-affiliated counter-protesters set up across Beacon St. from the pro-union rally were benefiting from the wages and fights won by labor groups.
Kochan used last year’s battle over the Boston Firefighter’s contract as an example of effective negotiations that later face rejection by the public. Kochan said former City Council President Michael Ross’s political courage was a factor in coming to a resolution with the firefighters.
House Speaker Reobert DeLeo recently named Walsh as the chair of the House Ethics Committee. The Dorchester democrat and long-time labor advocate also began a new second job as the Building Trades Council’s secretary-treasurer and general agent earlier this year.