OP-ED | On Unions in the AG’s Office, Jepsen Plays Switzerland
As I write this on Labor Day, it occurs to me that in theory we should all welcome labor unions whenever they want to form. After all, they’ve done a lot of good, pulling millions of workers up and into the middle class and improving workplace safety and benefits.
I could go on and on. My wife is a dues-paying member of New York State United Teachers. As a result, our health insurance is one of the best policies money can buy. She will have a terrific defined-benefit pension, while I who have never worked in the public sector, will have to make do with something less.
Still, if I were running a business, or a government department, as state Attorney General George Jepsen is, I’m not sure I how thrilled I would be if my employees wanted to unionize.
Labor costs will increase, which invariably means budgets for other items will have to be cut or the price of your product will increase. Your workforce will surely become less flexible. Both outcomes will make the organization less competitive.
That is likely the situation Jepsen faces as he considers whether to endorse an effort by the American Federation of Teachers to unionize the nearly 200 lawyers in his office.
The situation is particularly tricky for Jepsen, who received union support in his bid for AG and will likely need it if he runs for re-election — or for an even higher office — in 2018. Furthermore, Jepsen began his legal career as general counsel for Carpenters Local 210 in western Connecticut, negotiating contracts for wages and benefits, among other tasks.
As of this week, Jepsen was officially neutral on whether to support a petition filed by the American Federation of Teachers to unionize 196 full- and part-time attorneys general at what is essentially the state’s largest law firm.
As a prerequisite for filing a petition to the State Labor Relations Board, at least 30 percent of the employees must have signed union cards — similar to a controversial process known as “card check.” The board validates the signatures on the cards and tries to confirm they were not signed under duress.
In an attempt to ramp up the pressure on Jepsen to abandon his neutrality, Lori Pelletier, the president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, held a rally in Hamden over Labor Day weekend to urge more labor types to prod Jepsen into endorsing the AFT effort.
“If you’re at an event and you happen to see the attorney general? would you give him a message: Voluntarily recognize the union. Why waste taxpayers dollars going for an election? Can you do that?” Pelletier asked the more than 100 labor leaders and activists. “. . . 65 percent of the workers want a union. They signed a card.”
Pelletier also sniffed that Jepsen failed to stop some of his lawyers opposed to unionization from meeting with an anti-union attorney on state property. This just strikes me as ridiculous. Can you imagine the reaction if Jepsen had told them they couldn’t meet? Some would surely have accused him of being a union thug.
Interestingly, Jepsen did not attend the event but several other political VIPs did, including Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman and Comptroller Kevin Lembo, both potential gubernatorial candidates in 2018, and U.S. Reps. John Larson and Elizabeth Esty. And of course, there was Jepsen’s predecessor as AG, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who was featured speaker and is up for re-election in November.
No surprise there. None of them have skin in the game. They’re all strongly pro-labor and the unionizing of Jepsen’s office won’t affect their own budgets. After all, it’s easy to spend other people’s money.
I wonder whether the staffers of Larson, Esty, and Blumenthal are represented by labor unions. Answer: probably not. Most congressional employees are not permitted to join unions and are expressly forbidden from striking or engaging in work slowdowns. Even picketing in their spare time is restricted.
I’ve never heard a pro-labor member of Congress explain why it’s so important to give other people’s employees the right to protest and to collective bargaining while their own legislative aides can’t even go on strike and picket in front of the entrance to their boss’ office.
I’m sure Larson, Esty, and Blumenthal would say, “They don’t need those rights. We treat our employees fairly.” But that’s what all organizations say when confronted with the possibility of a unionized workforce. Even the left-leaning Arianna Huffington initially resisted when writers at the Huffington Post wanted to join a union (she later voluntarily recognized it).
A spokesperson for Jepsen told The Yankee Institute her boss had not stated an opinion on the attempt to unionize and that “he is neither supporting nor opposing the organization effort.”
Sometimes politicians fail to take a position out of cowardice. In this case, Jepsen is wise to play the role of Switzerland. Jepsen’s low-key, workmanlike approach to his job is in stark contrast to his camera-mugging predecessor. Let’s hope he keeps it that way.
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