Public schools are closed again in Quincy today as teachers are in the fourth day of a strike. A judge says he will fine the teachers union $150,000 for the illegal walk-off.
It's the state's first teachers strike in more than ten years. The main point of dispute is rising health care costs and who should pay for them. Insurance costs are vexing cities and towns across the Commonwealth, especially in teacher union contract negotiations. WBUR's Monica Brady-Myerov reports.TEXT OF STORY
MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: The teachers strike in Quincy has made parks like this one more crowded than they usually are on a school day. 2nd grader Tom Bradley was playing on the swings with his younger brother.
TOM BRADLEY: I'm also sort of glad and sort of not glad that we get to skip school because we're going to have to make up the days. And I'm glad because we don't have to do them right now. I just like to skip a day once and a while.
MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: The city of Quincy and teachers both say they want to end the unofficial vacation. But the sticking point remains health care. The city wants teachers to pay 20 percent toward their health care premiums rather than the current ten percent. Quincy Mayor William Phelan says health care costs for all city employees have increased 110% over the past 6 years and are crushing the budget, which has only increased 24%. Phelan says the soaring costs of health care cannot be carried by the city alone.
WILLIAM PHELAN: They are unsustainable bottom line and if something isn't done if a stand isn't taken our taxpayers are going to have to foot the bill they will be footing the bill thru higher taxes and at the same time seeing their own health benefits that are not as generous as those being provided by the City of Quincy employees are rising as well.
MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: It's an issue every city and town in Massachusetts is facing because of fast rising health care costs. Sharing the burden has been contentious in teacher contract negotiations in Worcester, Dedham and Harvard to name a few. Because of this, Glen Koocher executive director of the Massachusetts association of School Committees, says everybody in education is watching Quincy.
GLEN KOOCHER: What's happening in Quincy is very import because the mayor is taking stand and a lot of people around the state are looking to see who is going to take a stand, clearly unions will test waters and school committee and other municipalities led by the mayor whose usually the chair of the school committee in a city, will push back and try to hold the line.
MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: Koocher says that most of the state's teachers have settled with a raise and agreed to pay more of their health care. On average teachers pay 25% toward their health care premiums and municipalities pay 75%. Currently Quincy pays 90% of a family HMO plan with a $5 co-payment, more generous than any other city and town according to the mayor. And a much better deal than what most private employers offer. It's what attracted Jim McAdam to teach 8th grade language arts at Point Webster middle school.
JIM MCADAM: I'm a father of 3 and when I decided to work in Quincy I had to look at both the compensation as salary as well as benefit and as many of the other members I was willing to take a lower salary for outstanding health benefits. As the mayor and school committee proposed there'll be no increase in salary and an increase in my health insurance premiums and as well as an increase in my co-payment that equals a net loss.
MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: McAdam doesn't buy the mayor's argument that health care costs are crippling the city's budget.
JIM MCADAM: I believe that our city finances at this time right now unlike in the past is in excellent condition. We have a cash surplus our city bond rating is outstanding.
MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: But Mayor Phelan says it's the future burden that concerns him.
WILLIAM PHELAN: The problem is if the costs of health care for all city employees isn't addressed then not only the budgets in the police, the fire the dpw be decimated so will the school systems budget and then no one wins.
MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: There is one proposal on Beacon Hill that would address the cost of health care by allowing cities and towns to join the state's insurance pool, which has significantly lower costs. The bill would require 70% of the unions agree to join the state system, but it would take away the union's ability to negotiate benefits with health plans. The bill is now in committee.
In Quincy, the teachers seem to enjoy a lot of support judging from the signs on many front lawns and the comments from parents with the park with their kids.
BARBARA MORIARTI: I'm absolutely ok with paying higher taxes to support the teachers health care because they need to support their families
MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: Barbara Moriarti has two school aged daughters.
BARBARA MORIARTI: They should not have to dip into their pay checks in order to pay for their health care they should get as many benefits as they can so they are happy teaching when they are happy teaching I think we are going to get better quality teachers applying into Quincy.
MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: School is supposed to be over for the year on Friday, but administrators say children will have to make up days, once the strike is over.
For WBUR I'm Monica Brady-Myerov.
This program aired on June 13, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.