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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
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“Cuomo is asking workers to make up one-twentieth of his deficit and he’s demonizing these people,” Luciano said. “And here we have a governor who is asking for one-third of the deficit, but he keeps saying ‘you guys are great. He’s a smart guy; he knows that you respond better when your friends ask you for money than when your enemies ask for money.”

 The tactic worked on the campaign trail where he portrayed Republican ambassador Tom Foley as a union buster. Malloy is depicting the battle for concessions as another do-or-die for state workers. If employees don’t sacrifice a little now, then his opponent in 2014 will do far worse, as he told union leaders on March 4.

His audience seems to agree. “If Tom Foley was the governor, we’d be on the menu,” AFL-CIO treasurer Lori J. Pelletier told the Connecticut Mirror. “With Dan Malloy elected governor, we’re at the table.”

 Malloy may not be exaggerating about his re-election prospects. A Quinnipiac poll taken just after the budget address revealed 51 percent of Connecticut voters disapproved of his proposal with 66 percent complaining of too many taxes and 39 percent saying there were too few spending cuts.

Malloy is still maneuvering to control the message. He embarked on a townhall tour of the state, packing 17 meetings into March and April to make his case. He is trying to avoid the political fallout that torched former Republican governor and felon John Rowland when he laid off 3,000 employees in 2003. The public regarded him as a bully during the labor dispute and his approval rating fell almost 30 percent — even before corruption charges came to define his administration.

A common theme has emerged at the townhalls. Without union concessions, Malloy warns, he will be forced to institute “nasty and ugly” layoffs and “dire” service cuts. If the governor follows through with his layoff plan, the state will save $455 million with another $545 million in spending cuts. The ball is now in labor’s court as far as the public is concerned.

A majority of residents approve of Malloy’s concessions. The Quinnipiac poll found that 68 percent of people liked the idea of a public wage freeze and 53 percent approved of 3 furlough days for employees. But they are skeptical. While the tax increase could be set in stone, the concessions the governor speaks of are up in the air. Less than 20 percent of voters think the union will agree to cuts. Malloy thinks wagging the layoff stick could change the perception among workers and residents that he is the bad guy in the budget battle.

But could this governor, who walks picket lines and mocks Scott Walker, actually follow through on his threats? Malloy has acted in the affirmative throughout negotiations. He warned of layoffs in February. In April, he sent out notices on layoff procedures to management, indicating he is willing to pull the trigger if unions do not come to an agreement in the near future. Malloy said he wanted talks wrapped up by early May and immediately ordered notices drawn up after that deadline.

Some labor leaders appear to take the governor at his word. On March 16, the Administrative and Residual Employees Union polled members on 11 potential concessions, including wage freezes, the retirement age for new employees, health insurance increases and the elimination of automatic cost of living adjustment for retirees.

The question remains, why hasn’t Dannel Malloy stood down frothing masses in front of the state capitol? Despite his drastic cuts, Malloy has found himself addressing union protests — as he did in the state’s Wisconsin solidarity rally — rather than at the center of placards.

“The reason you’re not seeing outrage is because he is saying both concessions and savings are the way to save the state money,” Luciano said.

Luciano, himself, has a host of ideas he says will save millions: include workers from small businesses, non-profits and municipalities in the state worker’s health care pool to leverage lower costs from providers; give away chronic medication to stem expensive emergency room visits. It’s a grab bag of things that do not address Malloy’s concessions or express an interest in giving an inch.

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