Union Official Rolls Eyes, Sparks Contract Debate
It wasn’t collective bargaining policy that provoked a dispute between legislative Republicans and a union official during a Tuesday hearing — it was a roll of the eyes.
Rep. Terrie Wood, R-Darien, stopped midway through a question to SEIU 1199 President David Pickus during a hearing on a collective bargaining agreement for personal care workers.
“Question to President Pickus on the outreach efforts — are you rolling your eyes?” Wood asked.
Pickus said he didn’t mean to convey disrespect and cited a medical condition. He later told reporters he has been suffering from an eye injury. But Wood and other Republicans on the Appropriations Committee saw enough rudeness in the labor official’s body language to draw House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero to the committee hearing.
The incident occurred about an hour into a public hearing on a contract for personal care workers who serve low-income elderly and disabled residents and are paid through a state program.
The committee eventually approved the agreement, which includes pay increases and training opportunities for the personal care workers. It will have an estimated net cost to the state of $6.7 million through June 30, 2016.
Speaking outside the hearing room, Cafero said lawmakers from his caucus already felt they lacked oversight of the unionization process because Gov. Dannel P. Malloy set it in motion with a 2011 executive order to which Republicans objected.
“The questions that are being asked . . . are all legitimate. And if someone from the union is impatient to answer them or feels bothered by it, they should suck it up and get over it,” he said.
The exchange between Wood and Pickus came on the heels of extensive questioning from Republicans on the committee to Pickus and labor attorney Daniel Livingston on the process by which the union conducted a vote to approve the contract among the personal care workers.
The tone was sometimes contentious as lawmakers asked for details like the exact vote tally and how many people are in the personal care worker segment of the union — Pickus did not know either number off-hand.
“This is a farce,” Rep. Al Adinolfi, R-Cheshire, told the committee chair at one point. “They don’t know how many members are in the union.”
Wood, a moderate Republican, was attempting to ask how the union reached out to the approximately 7,000 personal care workers in the state to inform them a vote was occurring.
A few minutes after asking Pickus if he’d rolled his eyes at her, Wood told him she was sympathetic to unions. She said she has been a member of three unions, but felt Pickus had been disrespectful while answering questions from another Republican lawmaker.
“I understand the benefit of being in a union. I understand why unions exist but we still have a responsibility to ask these questions and, I will say, I take issue with the way you treated my colleague . . . And I did see you roll your eyes when I started to ask you a question,” she said.
Other Republicans on the committee seemed offended. The panel’s ranking Republican, Rep. Craig Miner, R-Litchfield, returned to the subject later in the meeting, asking Pickus to apologize to Wood, whom he said was a calm lawmaker.
Pickus apologized, saying he did not intend to convey any disrespect. He later said he’d recently had laser surgery on his eyes, which sometimes caused his eyes to move involuntarily.
“I have a retinal tear and of course I meant no disrespect whatsoever. I see flashes and my eyes move,” he said.
Retina aside, Cafero said a number of Republicans felt that Pickus’s responses and body language were obviously rude. He said the union official was right to apologize.
Cafero said his caucus, as the minority, is “extra sensitive” to disrespect.
“In my caucus, there’s always consequences to disrespect. Always. There’s no room for that,” he said.
The whole exchange did not stop some Republicans from supporting the contract. But some, like Wood, expressed concerns that union officials did not seem to think the details were important. Pickus told reporters he felt the outcome was what was important.
“To us it’s not that big a deal as to how many people voted for it, how many didn’t, what matters is did they vote for it?” he said.
Despite Tuesday’s debate, it’s still unknown how many of the 7,000 personal care workers will join the union since none have paid dues.
The House members of the Appropriations Committee approved the resolution 33 to 1, with Rep. Whit Betts, R-Bristol, voting against the measure and the Senate members approved it 8 to 1, with Sen. Rob Kane, R-Watertown, voting against the measure. The two resolutions move to the full House and Senate.