With Labor Tensions High, Mass Union Seeks to Recruit Prison Workers
A Massachusetts-based union representing correction workers said it’s recruiting Connecticut prison workers and getting results in the midst of confusion, anxiety and anger over continued labor talks with the governor’s administration.
Correctional officers and prison employees, who number over 4,500, are currently represented by AFSCME Council 4. They overwhelmingly rejected the $1.6 billion tentative concession package between the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration.
But with more than 4,000 layoffs looming, including 863 Correction employees, union leaders voted Monday to change their bylaws to make future agreements easier to pass. And as renewed talks aimed at reaching a similar agreement continue, some prison workers seem interested in the advances of the Springfield-based National Correctional Employees Union.
NCEU represents prison workers in Massachusetts and recently added county worker unions from Maine. Now the union has set its sights on converting Connecticut state workers.
AFSCME Local 319 President Jon T. Pepe called NCEU a business, not a union, which is trying to capitalize on recent discontent from correctional officers.
“Where were they last year?” Pepe asked. “Is that how they want people to make their decisions? When people are confused and anxious?”
If the union wants correctional officers to decertify AFSMCE and join them, they will have to jump through a number of hoops. Like most labor matters, the process of changing representation is a complicated one. Members must first submit signed cards of interest representing at least 30 percent of their membership to the state Board of Labor Relations along with a petition, according to the Department of Labor.
NCEU Executive Director Christopher Murphy said they hadn’t yet counted those “blue cards” but he said he was receiving inquiries from all over the state and is very confident they will get the requisite number, about 1,500.
He’s been getting help from some help from at least one Connecticut CO. Correctional officer John Boyle, who is retiring in August, said he’s been going around and passing out the cards over the last couple of days.
“They’re going like hot cakes,” he said.
As a soon-to-be retiree, Boyle said he doesn’t have “a horse in the race.” But he is deeply unhappy with both AFSCME and the State Employee Bargaining Agent Coalition; groups he said seem to exist only to collect dues from workers.
“They’re taking people’s money going behind closed doors and selling them out,” he said.
Should NCEU get enough signed cards, the labor board will take them and determine whether the names are valid. It then investigates the petition, meeting with the current union, the prospective union and the employer, in this case the state. With that information the board makes a decision whether or not to hold an election.
But there are other restrictions, including a requirement for state unions that the petition be submitted during the month of August on the year before the expiration of the workers’ current contract.
Representatives of SEBAC and AFSCME point out that for state correctional officers, that window was last August. Larry Dorman, spokesman for AFSCME Council 4, said they are not worried about NCEU or the cards circulating amongst prison staffers.
“We believe that window is firmly closed. We’re going to continue to focus on protecting our members’ jobs and safety,” he said.
But Murphy said prospective unions are also allowed to go after a unit when it is operating without a contract. Correctional officer contracts expired on June 30.
He said Wednesday that AFSCME has been doing a lousy job of protecting and its members’ interests.
“The message they’re giving us is their feeling sold out and not being represented,” he said.
That has led them to reach out to his group for the second time since 2008, when NCEU also tried to recruit Connecticut prison workers by circulating the same blue cards, Murphy said. At that time AFSCME accused NCEU of illegally obtaining the home addresses of correctional officers to send the cards directly to their residences.
They submitted the signed cards they obtained to the labor board, which later notified them that they were about 300 cards short of the requisite 30 percent, he said. By that time it was too late.
“AFSCME reached a deal and we were locked out,” he said.
This time Murphy doesn’t anticipate that being a problem. He said that SEBAC has overreached its authority by negotiating agreements beyond its purview of healthcare and pension provisions. He said also that the coalition had union leaders violating their own bylaws in the process of amending them and suggested NCEU would fight them with every legal avenue available.
Dorman defended his group and its work on behalf of correctional officers, who he said “walk the toughest beat in Connecticut.”
“We have an excellent record of protecting our people both at the bargaining table and beyond it,” Dorman said. “We stand by that record.”
Council 4 won an arbitration award in 2009, which gave its members much-deserved raises, he said. They have also successfully fended off privatization efforts from two previous administrations, he said.
Dorman said that attacks directed at SEBAC were misleading since state law requires the group to exist.
“SEBAC is a statutory creation. The law calls for it to exist. To lead people to believe otherwise is pure deception,” he said.