Connecticut's Union Battle
A Democratic governor struggles to deal with fiscal realities and placate his union allies.
1:45 PM, May 16, 2011 • By BILL MCMORRIS
“If we don’t succeed, I probably won’t be re-elected. If I’m not re-elected, you’re not gonna have somebody who does the kinds of things I do, who actually believes in government, and believes in unions at the same time.” — Gov. Dannel Malloy to union leaders on March 4.
Dannel Malloy is Connecticut’s first Democratic governor in twenty years, but he currently rests in no-man’s land. In February, he unveiled a budget which should have appealed to his base. He plans to increase spending by $1.5 billion over the next two years. He proposed the state’s largest tax increase in 20 years, a move which is expected to generate $1.5 billion. But the people who helped bring Malloy to office in an election decided by less than 6,000 votes out of 1.1 million cast are less than happy with the governor at the moment. That is because Malloy is also calling for $2 billion in concessions from the state’s 45,000 workers over the next two years and has issued thousands of layoff notices if his conditions are not met.
Connecticut is the second most indebted state in the nation, according to Forbes, and faces a $3.4 billion deficit, meaning the government does not have the money to cover 17 percent of its spending. On top of that, it is – by conservative estimates – more than $40 billion short of meeting pension obligations to the state’s 90,000 workers and retirees. The benefits afforded to employees are becoming some of the fastest growing costs to the government.
Malloy stated outright in his budget address that state workers enjoy “wage, health care, and pension benefit levels (that) are simply not sustainable.” He is not exaggerating. The average state employee earns $14,000 more than the average private sector worker in Connecticut, figures union leaders say are skewed by the higher education levels of public sector workers like university professors. The data disagrees. In an apples-to-apples comparison conducted by the Office of Legislative Research, low level employees like typists, clerks and secretaries make thousands more than their counterparts in the private sector, while high level employees like professors and lawyers make considerably less.
Malloy is looking to contain these costs by increasing employee contributions to health care, raising the state’s retirement age to 65 for new workers and arranging a two year wage-freeze, which alone would save the state $600 million. He warns of mass layoffs and cuts to the safety net if unions do not agree to the concessions. On Tuesday, he ordered the state to prepare for mass layoffs after failed weekend negotiations with labor leaders; 4,742 employees, almost 11 percent of the state’s workforce, could be shown the door if union leaders do not accede to his demands.
Malloy’s budget strategy came as a shock to labor leaders.
“We worked hard to get him elected and this is not what we expected,” said Sal Luciano, Executive Director of the politically powerful Connecticut chapter of the Association of Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).
Malloy’s bid for the governor’s mansion would not have been possible without labor support, a point he has acknowledged on several occasions. In 2006, his candidacy foundered, partially because he was unable to attract union support after tense negotiations with city workers when he was mayor of Stamford, CT.
He did not make the same mistake in 2010, courting labor early in the campaign. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), a political powerhouse for Democrats, spent $400,000 to help elect Malloy. AFSCME launched a “record breaking effort” for the campaign, according to Luciano. The union engaged in mass mailing efforts, set up door to door canvassing in neighborhoods across the state and held numerous rallies.
Malloy has made a habit of living up to the expectations of a labor friendly leader. He called Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s attempt to curb collective bargaining rights “un-American” and branded New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s budget cuts unintellectual. He spent the August primary picketing with disgruntled nurses, and on April 10, he joined AFSCME in protesting a contract dispute at the Red Cross. Luciano said the governor received a “gracious” reception at the event.
Rather than taking on the unions in the style of Christie or Walker or New York’s Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo, Malloy is attempting to preserve union support, while asking them for larger cuts than those leaders he has branded “un-American.”