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Working In These Times

Thursday, Jul 7, 2011, 4:17 pm

Connecticut State Workers Brace for Layoffs, as Democrats Tighten Screws on Public-Sector Unions

BY Cole Stangler

Although it looked like Connecticut might escape the intense battles over public-sector cuts that have taken place across the country between state legislatures and organized labor, remarkable developments over the last few weeks have made the state the next battleground over fiscal austerity and workers' rights.

Democratic Governor Dannel Malloy—the same governor who was elected with heavy union-backing and who on Tuesday signed the nation’s first paid sick-leave bill into law—has obtained extraordinary power from the State General Assembly to personally balance the state’s budget, and has even hinted at limiting collective bargaining rights in response to the failure of state unions’ to ratify a $1.6 billion concessions deal to balance the state’s budget.

These developments come in addition to the 6,500 public sector layoffs the governor has promised to solve the-now-$1.6 billion budget shortfall projected over the next two years. (Connecticut’s General Assembly already approved $1.5 billion in tax increases as part of this year’s budget, the largest such increase in state history, leaving the $1.6 billion hole.)

“To do what [Malloy]’s suggesting [with the layoffs] is abominable, but he won’t consider any other option,” says Kathy Hermes, a member of the CSU-AAUP union, which represents employees in the Connecticut State University system. “He’s made people believe that the only way to balance the budget is on the backs of state workers, but that’s not true.”

The budget containing the billion-plus in tax increases, approved just weeks ago, also relied on the governor obtaining concessions and labor savings from state employees worth $700 million in the fiscal year beginning July 1 and $900 million the following year. Malloy had consistently said that if the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition (SEBAC) did not ratify the concessions deal agreed to by labor leaders, he would not seek additional tax increases and instead resort to mass layoffs and more spending cuts to make up the $1.6 billion shortfall.

Malloy is so far keeping to his promise—and the layoffs are set to take full effect by September 1. 

“Public employees are going to be blamed because this is how the power structure divides and conquers the working class,” says David Samuels, a community activist and member of AFSCME Council 4, the state’s largest union. “State employees didn’t put the state of Connecticut into debt… State employees didn’t issue bad mortgages, get caught up in derivatives, and casino Wall St. trading.”

Samuels, who voted against the concessions deal, emphasized that it was the AFSCME rank-and-file who revolted against union leadership by voting against the deal. AFSCME is the largest union in the state—and its rejection of the concessions package all but sealed the deal’s fate.  

“When I’m talking about the union, I’m talking about the rank-and-file. The union leadership sold us out. They’re stunned that the rank-and-file is rejecting this deal,” Samuels said. 

That union leadership is now desperately seeking to re-negotiate a deal with Malloy in order to avoid the layoffs. On Tuesday, SEBAC formally announced that it had rejected the concessions deal but that it was committed toward re-negotiation with the Governor. However, several barriers stand in place of an agreement.

First off, SEBAC’s complex voting rules make ratification difficult. For the deal to be ratified, 14 of 15 of the unions that make up SEBAC must agree, and those who vote in favor of ratification must make up 80 percent of unionized state employees. The first deal earned the support of 11 unions and about 57 percent of employees. It’s unclear whether the ratification rules could be modified in the coming days, but even if they are, the governor has maintained that he is only willing to clarify the old deal, and not negotiate new terms.   

Regardless of how these negotiations might proceed, the assault on organized labor has already begun. The State Senate has approved a bill to roll back collective bargaining rights for state employees for the first time since public worker collective bargaining began 35 years ago.

And while the House has thus far refused to take the bill up, Speaker Christopher Donovan (D-Meriden)—reputedly pro-union but perhaps looking ahead to appeasing voters for his 2012 congressional bid in the state’s most conservative congressional district—issued a stern warning.

“If there is no agreement, we may be dealing with these issues,” Donovan said on June 30. “I would think state employees would take notice that the bill is alive and on our calendar.”

In other words, if the union leadership is unable to successfully re-negotiate a contract and get it approved, state workers will face not only thousands of layoffs but also—if Donovan’s not-so-veiled threat is to be taken in earnest—the possibility of the House rolling back collective bargaining rights.

The governor already looks to be winning the war of public opinion. Like in so many other states, public employees have taken the heat for the state’s budget problems. This attitude is best captured in the editorial section of the Hartford Courant, which has viciously attacked state employees and their allies over the last weeks.

“State employees’ selfishness will lose them support in Connecticut. Their friends in the strongly pro-union General Assembly would do well to listen,” the editorial board wrote on June 23.

The Courant continued in a July 6 editorial on the same subject,

At least in Wisconsin, the public employee unions got some sympathy from the general public because state workers agreed to givebacks that helped balance that state's budget. Then they got stripped of their bargaining rights for their trouble. In Connecticut, the required percentage of union members refused to concede anything. No wonder the tangy smell of cheese is in the air.

Regardless of one’s opinions on the concessions deal—indeed there are many unionized employees who disagree vehemently with those who rejected it—the fact that this anti-union attitude appears to be evolving into a bipartisan consensus is a disturbing and alarming development. From Malloy and his Democratic allies to the deficit hawks who make up the Republican minority, suddenly it seems everyone knows who’s to blame for the state’s budget problems: state workers. 

What’s more, in addition to the massive layoffs and the looming threats to collective bargaining rights, Malloy has made some recent moves that don't bode well for those struggling in his state.

On July 5, the Governor vetoed a bill that would have required public hearings for health insurance companies seeking rate increases greater than 10 percent. And days before that, Malloy obtained the approval of the General Assembly for a $18 million reduction in earned income tax credit. It's a regressive shift in the tax burden that overwhelmingly affects the working class. 

“Malloy fronts like he’s a so-called progressive, like a lot of Democrats do, but the fact is that he’s a bought and paid-for politician,” Samuels says.

Cole Stangler is an In These Times staff writer and Schumann Fellow based in Washington D.C., covering labor, trade, foreign policy and environmental issues. His reporting has appeared in The Huffington Post and The American Prospect, and has been cited in The New York Times. He can be reached at cole[at]inthesetimes.com. Follow him on Twitter @colestangler.

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