As state workers gathered at the Capitol Wednesday to lobby for a fairer tax structure, an affordable health care system, and retirement security they also offered frank assessments of the tentative agreement reached last week by State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition.
Larry Dorman, spokesman for SEBAC, said the timing of the Capitol visit, which was scheduled back in January, was coincidental but the workers present were happy to give their takes on the recent agreement.
Deanna Chaparro, of Local 538, said she’s still in the process of digesting the agreement’s rather dense health care sections. Overall, she said she was confident union negotiators came to the agreement in good faith with the welfare of workers in mind.
Chaparro said she was happy to see that, though changed, employee pensions were still intact. She said she was concerned retirement plans would be changed to 401K type plans, which are risky in tough economic times.
She was not particularly sad to see that there were no furlough days included in the agreement. Last year she said her two furlough days were timed inconveniently—one near Thanksgiving and another near Christmas. Both are tough times to be taking home a reduced paycheck, she said.
Is the agreement perfect? Chaparro said no. She said the feedback she has been hearing from her co-workers has not been completely positive either. Many are wary of changes to their health care plans. In the end she said she would rather give up some than lose her job.
“I’m willing to give back something fair but we don’t want to give away the farm,” she said. “My only hope is that in two years they don’t come back and ask us to give up more.”
Godfrey Ferguson, of Local 2663, said that he was generally happy with the agreement but said he has heard co-workers criticize its Value Based Health Care provisions. That part of the plan would, among other things, require employees to sign a form pledging to attend annual physicals, age-appropriate diagnostics, and two free dental cleanings per year.
Ferguson said some of his co-workers interpret that plan as the government essentially telling them how to live. But he said they may come around after they are educated about the program. Ferguson said he tries to live a healthy life and would like to see his colleagues do the same, especially if it saves taxpayers money.
He said some members have been put off by an “aggressive” media campaign Gov. Dannel P. Malloy launched, pushing negotiators to quickly arrive at an agreement. He said colleagues have called that effort vicious. But he gave Malloy credit for doing what former Gov. M. Jodi Rell did not—fund pension obligations.
Like Chaparro, he said he was happy to see that the agreement protects employees from layoffs for four years. While there may be complaints, he said he believes that his union will eventually ratify the agreement.
“That will settle a lot of nerves,” he said.
Lillian Sewell, an AFSCME Council 4 retiree, said she was concerned with the priorities evident in the agreement. Sewell was part of the negotiating committee for AFSCME before she retired in 1997, and said back then state employees focused on benefits rather than wages.
She was critical of the agreement, saying a three-year increase in the retirement age will be bad news for her son, who is also a state employee.
“What really saddens me is when I hear my youngest son saying to me, ‘Mom, I don’t know if I can do my job if they raise the age, I have really physical job,’” she said. “The state workers always had the best benefits, my husband retired from Pratt and Whitney and I had to put him on my insurance.”
In order for the agreement to be adopted, 14 of 15 unions, or 80 percent of those voting, will need to ratify it. The voting process could take as long as three weeks, as it did back in 2009 when changes to the 1997 agreement were ratified by SEBAC members.
Dorman said it’s important to look at the agreement within the larger context of what it means to the middle class. Many of the workers saw the fate of unions and fate of the American middle class as inextricably tied.
“Just as Henry Ford gave the United States of America the motor car, unions gave America the middle class,” Ferguson said.
Dorman said the union’s “Campaign for the Middle Class” hinges on three tiers—a fairer tax structure, an affordable health care system, and retirement security for workers.
The campaign is throwing its weight behind several bills in the General Assembly including a measure which would require employers with more than 50 employees to offer paid time off for sick days. It is also endorsing SustiNet, a health insurance pool for municipalities and nonprofits.
After a brief press event, over a dozen members of AFSCME marched from the Capitol building to the Legislative Offices to drop off around 2,000 postcards sent in from members across the state.
The postcards, collected over the past six weeks, outlined the principles of the campaign for lawmakers.