Layoffs Averted; Labor Deal Approved
(Updated 4:25 p.m.) State employee union leaders made it official Thursday afternoon, announcing that 14 of the 15 unions easily voted to adopt the $1.6 billion savings and concession package.
The Connecticut State Police Union was the only union that hadn’t finished voting on the agreement but it is believed they will vote to reject it. The Correction Captains and Lieutenants bargaining unit rejected the agreement voting against both the benefits and the wage concessions, which means it doesn’t have layoff protection.
The State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition, the coalition of 15 unions representing more than 45,000 state workers, gathered at the CSEA SEIU Local 2001 union hall in Hartford at 12:30 p.m. to announce the deal had been ratified. The package will save thousands of jobs and spare state service cuts. It also put to bed the two-year, $40.1 billion state budget that depended on the savings from the state labor agreement.
State employees at the union hall hooted and hollered after rank and file members spoke to the media about the process and why they voted in favor of the agreement. Missing from the press conference was all but one of the 15 union leaders, who have been beaten up in the comment sections of websites by a minority of their membership over the deal.
“Nearly 26,000 members voted yes, that’s more than twice as many who voted no and more than five times as many who were threatened with layoffs,” said Dawn Tyson, of Local 538.
It was more than a 98 percent per-capita vote when the membership size of each union is accounted for, she said.
Both the unions and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said the second vote surpassed expectations by receiving enough support to be ratified under the old bylaws. The threshold for ratification was lowered by union leadership between the first and second vote. The move has been criticized mostly by the minority of state employees able to defeat the agreement the first time under the old bylaws.
“Our members ratified this agreement by a super-majority that would have carried under any bylaws,” said Connecticut Employees Union Independent President Ron McLellan.
In the end 32 of the state’s 34 bargaining units approved the package.
Members who spoke at the union press conference lauded the deal’s passage as a labor victory at a time when organized labor is under attack. They sought to put the new deal in a national context, in a year that has seen bargaining rights cut, layoffs, and protest across the country.
“This was a much bigger fight in a larger picture than I think what people thought at the beginning,” said CSEA SEIU Local 2001 member Roland Bishop, a correctional institution school teacher.
“The billionaires and the large corporations who have targeted public service workers across the country do not always win,” McLellan said.
While union members were still celebrating at the union hall, Malloy released a lengthy statement applauding the news and praising what the deal will accomplish in the future.
“As important as it is that we’ve closed the current budget deficit in a responsible way – by avoiding thousands of layoffs and hundreds of millions of dollars in painful spending cuts – the real value of this agreement lies in the $21.5 billion it will save taxpayers over the next 20 years in the form of lower healthcare and retirement costs for state employees,” he said.
By passing the agreement, Malloy said unions accomplished something skeptics said could never happen— a sustainable relationship between the state and its workforce. Unlike other states, he said Connecticut accomplished that “without going to war with public employees.”
If the deal hadn’t been ratified Malloy said “come 2017 there would have been hell to pay because we would have run up unpaid obligations, unfunded obligations.”
He said the legislation which took away some collective bargaining rights would have to be much more robust in 2017 in order to make the state’s relationship with its employees sustainable. He said the legislation the Senate passed, but the House tabled in June would been pennies on the dollar by 2017. The steps the state would have had to take would have been much more dramatic, Malloy said.
But state employees who saw their retirement age increase by three years and saw their pension calculations changed under the ratified agreement wanted to know when Malloy would be cutting the ranks of non-union management.
“In today’s vote, we took charge to improve the way the state delivers very vital public services,” said Robert Alves, a New Haven mental health worker with SEIU District 1199. “We will now hold the governor accountable to carrying out a commitment in this agreement to streamline wasteful levels of management and to empower frontline workers.”
Malloy said he will be holding up his end of the bargain.
“I’ve said for the better part of two years that I believe Connecticut’s management has too many layers,” Malloy said. “It needs to be flattened out and I can assure you over time that process will continue.”
“I have done everything in my ability to right this relationship,” Malloy said Friday at an afternoon press conference. “In creating this new class of employees we have dealt with many of the things that my fellow citizens of the state of Connecticut have complained about most importantly longevity.”
Under the concession deal new employees will not receive longevity payments and final pension calculations will be made on the last five years of service, not the last three years. Current employees will have to contribute 3 percent of their pay over the next 10 years to retiree health care benefits. Also their retirement age will increase three years, if they decide not to retire before Oct. 1 of this year.
Malloy called the deal “historic” but conceded it took more time than he would have liked.
“Sure, this agreement took a few extra months to achieve – but so what? Those extra months are a small price to pay for the billions of dollars that extra time will save taxpayers, the critical services that time will preserve, and the peace of mind that comes from understanding the state now has a sustainable relationship with its employee base,” he said.
The administration even identified some significant additional savings as a byproduct of the prolonged budgetary debate, he said. Office of Policy and Management Secretary Ben Barnes will elaborate on those savings Friday, he said.
Malloy said the agreement is only the first step in his plan to re-make Connecticut state government.
“Let me also be clear that we are far from being out of the woods; we still have budgetary issues we need to address, and we’re of course focused every day on turning this economy around and creating good-paying jobs for Connecticut residents. So while this is a good day, and we should all be grateful to everyone who helped make this agreement happen, we need a lot more good days before any of us can feel satisfied,” he said.
As for the naysayers who doubted a deal could be reached, the governor had a few choice words for them too.
“There were many people who said we could not reach an agreement that we achieved here this day,” Malloy said at a Capitol press conference. “They were wrong. There were many people who said when the first agreement was rejected that I should renegotiate the terms of the agreement or it would fail a second time. They were wrong.”
Michael Lee-Murphy contributed to this report