The Massachusetts Senate and the state's labor movement are largely on the same page and have a "close partnership," Senate President Karen Spilka said Monday as both sides highlighted a 2018 unemployment benefits extension law as a joint accomplishment and looked forward to potential new revenues.
The speaking program at the Greater Boston Labor Council's annual legislative breakfast got started Monday morning with a recognition of John Buonopane and Joe Kirylo, the heads of United Steelworkers Locals 12012 and 12003, for their work during last year's National Grid lockout of gas workers.
Buonopane and Kirylo each praised the Legislature for passing a bill extending the availability of jobless benefits for 26 weeks or until a lockout has ended. Two days after Gov. Charlie Baker signed the bill, National Grid and the unions announced a tentative contract deal in January that led to the lockout's end.
"The way you passed that UI extension bill, it was unprecedented. You stood up for our members and you stood up for every other utility worker in the state," Buonopane said. "When I started thinking about it, it really made me proud to be a citizen of Massachusetts and it's something I never really thought of myself as, a citizen of Massachusetts."
Kirylo said it was "absolutely incredible" that the bill passed without opposition in December and called members of the state Legislature "the best in the country."
While the locked-out workers benefits bill was pending before the Legislature, Buonopane and Kirylo expressed frustration with the process and the slow pace of legislative activity.
"I don't know how things work up here, what kind of games go on," Buonopane said in November after a session during which the Senate did not admit the more-than-three-month-old petition.
Spilka acknowledged the wait on Monday but reminded the labor groups that she promised to get the bill passed and she followed through on her end.
"I understand that the process was not easy for any of us and I realize that the uncertainty that many felt while waiting for the Legislature to come through produced a lot of anxiety, I recognize that," she said. "If there is one message that I would like to convey as a result of that process is this: I made a promise that we would pass that bill, timely pass that bill, and I don't make promises lightly. In fact I don't make them all that often. And when I do, I will keep my promise."
At the outset of the 2019 session, Spilka said described achieving true mental health parity as her "personal promise to all of you," including "finding creative ways to integrate preventative mental health care into our health care system."
Spilka on Monday said the UI benefits extension bill took as long as it did to wend its way to the governor's desk for a signature because "the Senate needed time to evaluate the best course of action."
She said that she understands the sometimes-complicated processes unions go through to reach consensus among their members and reminded the labor groups that legislators have their own processes they must go through before passing a bill.
"I ask that we continue this close partnership and that we keep an open and honest conversation ongoing between labor and the Senate," she said. "We will fight with you ... and I hope in this coming session we have a lot to celebrate working together."
Greater Boston Labor Council Secretary-Treasurer Richard Rogers had a few suggestions for issues that the Senate and labor might be able to work together on.
"We need revenue," he said. "Our current tax system just isn't bringing in enough to meet the needs of the citizens of the commonwealth."
Rogers called on the Legislature to increase funding for public schools and public transportation, and said the state "faces economic peril" without greater public investment. He said GBLC understands that "raising taxes is never easy," but suggested there is a growing appetite for the Legislature to raise additional revenue.
"The mindset in the commonwealth is rapidly changing. There is a consensus forming that we need to invest in our public schools and in public transportation," he said. Rogers added, "We know it's not easy and we know if you try to move forward the lobbying industry in Massachusetts and the business and trade associations are going to be all over you. To be honest, if this was a year ago I probably wouldn't have made these suggestions. There he goes again, radical leader Rich Rogers. But believe me, public perceptions are changing at the speed of light."
Spilka, who has the Senate gearing up for a long-term exploration of the state's tax code, said Monday that she supports the revived "millionaire's tax" -- which would impose a 4 percent surtax on income greater than $1 million -- but said that effort is not enough.
"We need to do more. We need to take a look at our tax code. Massachusetts can do better," she said. "We need to make sure we're capturing revenue from our new technologically-driven industries but also that we create a more progressive tax code that addresses the issue of income inequality head-on. We must create an economy that works for all of us and we must create a government that reflects our values and that can pay for the priorities that we all hold so dear."