August 22, 2011
HARTFORD, Conn. – Reaching a deal that required concessions from state employee unions to help balance Connecticut’s state budget has strained the relationships between the workers, union leaders, state lawmakers and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
Repairing those alliances may not happen swiftly.
“I think it would be rocky right now, very rocky,” said Sal Luciano, executive director of AFSCME Council 4, of the relationship between the unions and Malloy. AFSCME, along with other state unions, helped Malloy narrowly win election last November.
“We worked very hard to get this governor elected, and we’re happy to have an agreement, but it’s been a rough road,” he said.
Malloy initially stunned union members when he said in February he was seeking $2 billion in savings and givebacks over two years from the more than 50,000 state employees, including the 45,000 unionized workers. It was part of his “shared sacrifice” approach to balancing the state’s budget with concessions, budget cuts and wide-ranging tax increases.
That announcement prompted months of closed-door talks between the administration and the unions. The first tentative agreement fell apart. Thousands of layoff notices were sent out. There was widespread mistrust and misunderstanding over proposed changes to the workers’ health care plan. And there was an online war of words between rank-and-file members.
The agreement finally was ratified last week, providing four years of job protection to bargaining units that approved both the wage and benefits changes, which amount to $1.6 billion over the two-year, $40.1 billion state budget. More savings are projected in the future.
Dan Livingston, the unions’ chief labor negotiator, said even though Malloy worked with unions when he was mayor of Stamford, every relationship is different. He said communication could have been better, and he acknowledged that Malloy “can be a difficult boss.”
“The immediate respect shown to front-line workers could have been shown better as a boss, and it would have made this process easier,” Livingston said. “Employers learn over time how to deal with organized workers and how to deal effectively with their representatives, and I’m certainly hopeful that this governor will get better as he’s got more experience working with these 45,000 workers.”
Malloy said last week that he didn’t know whether his relationship with organized labor has suffered. He still believes that he’s different from other governors across the country, especially Republicans, who’ve battled with their state employees over collective bargaining rights amid difficult fiscal times.
“I feel very strongly in the right to negotiate, very strongly in the right to arbitrate, very strongly in labor’s right to organize. I never questioned those things. I’m feeling pretty good about the relationship,” Malloy said. “That’s not to say that feathers haven’t been ruffled. I’m sure they have. But we needed to get to this point and in comparison with how other states have done it, we in Connecticut can be proud.”
The bruised feelings are not just between union members and Malloy, but also between union members and their leadership. Some state employees are still upset the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition, which represented 15 unions in the talks, agreed to concessions after they agreed to givebacks in 2009. Online forums cropped up, where disgruntled members accused SEBAC leaders of selling them out, shoving the deal down their throats and having ulterior agendas.
“It’s going to be the responsibility of those 15 unions to do whatever they need to do to mend the fences,” said Patrice Peterson, president of CSEA-SEIU. “It’s a lot about communications. It’s about talking to people.”
Members of the Connecticut State Police Union, the only one of the 15 unions to defeat the wage portion of the agreement, announced Monday they want to leave SEABAC, arguing that they’re different from the other unions given the dangers of their jobs, and should negotiate pension and health benefits separately.
“We’re all union brothers and sisters, and we will always be there to support them but we just think that this really brought everything to focus for our members,” union president Andy Matthews said. “We are unique and distinct within state government, and we don’t think we’re better than anybody else, we just think we’re different.”
Livingston said he expects some ill feeling will subside if the administration follows through with using state employee’s budget-savings ideas to help balance the budget. Benjamin Barnes, Malloy’s budget chief, said the administration is committed “to having a positive relationship with our employees” and finding ways to make government more cost-effective using a new labor/management committee.
Work may also be needed to improve the relationship between the unions and the Democratic-controlled General Assembly. Some legislators who’ve been ardent supporters of unionized state employee were angry when the rank-and-file failed to ratify the tentative agreement in June. That prompted the state Senate to pass legislation proposed by Malloy to change future benefits, such as capping longevity bonus payments and limiting sick leave.
The House did not take it up, but reserved the right to do so.
“People are mad at the Senate, they’re mad at the House, they’re mad at the governor, they’re mad at their unions. So as long as those feelings are out there, we all have some fences to rebuild,” said Rep. Joseph Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, who worked to get the deal ratified. “It was messy how we got here, and we’ll fix that.”
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