When the final numbers come in, they’ll show that a minority of union members voted against the concessions agreement negotiated by SEBAC leaders and the governor’s office. It might be 30 percent, it might be less. In the end, it doesn’t matter. The 80 percent threshold was not reached, the agreement is going down.
It’s a stunning defeat. I’ve been trying to wrap my head around it since it became increasingly clear earlier this week that the agreement was doomed, and I just can’t. I don’t get why it happened. Sure, I’ve seen blogs and Facebook posts about why the deal was bad, but compared with the alternatives it seemed like a decent deal. I read the arguments against the concessions, but I never understood them. The objections seemed more rooted in petty office politics than in anything that had a place in the labor movement. I’m on the side of labor in a lot of cases, but this just leaves me shaking my head.
Rejection is an utter disaster on so many levels, from economic to social, but let’s put this into some political perspective. “No” voters in state government seemed miffed that the governor wasn’t respecting them enough, that his tactics were heavy-handed and amounted to bullying, but have they seen what’s happening almost everywhere else in the country? Gov. Dannel P. Malloy had to swim against a national tide of union bashing, layoffs, service cuts, and zero tax increases to push through an agreement that really did call for sacrifice from everyone. He has suffered greatly for it, his approval ratings are abysmal and his chances for a second term currently seem bleak.
Through it all, the governor’s office negotiated a tough-but-fair deal for state employee unions, a deal that could have been a national model for how to preserve services and keep people employed without raising taxes too much. This was the response to Govs. Scott Walker and Chris Christie, a rare moment of labor relations sanity in a country that desperately needs it. The only thing that was required was for state employees to do their part and ratify the best deal they were going to get under the circumstances. Because of a small minority of state employees, though, that didn’t happen and the deal is over.
It’s worth asking why it happened, and to put this event in its historical place. Why were a small number of fear-mongering Malloy-bashers and rabble-rousers able to turn enough state employees against the deal? Part of it is the troubled history of labor relations in this state and this country; public employee unions are so often scapegoats and whipping boys that it’s very difficult to see when concession agreements are crass politics and when they’re honest deals. The other thing to consider here is the continuing decline of the American middle class, the continuing stranglehold of the wealthy on the nation’s politics, and the utter failure of economic policy in the nation’s capital, all of which contributes to the siege mentality on display here. The historic and political context is not an excuse, but it is part of an explanation.
The political consequences are sure to be dire. “No” voters can’t possibly believe that the public will support them; rather, their worst prejudices against state employees have been confirmed. This is not Wisconsin. No one is on the unions’ side. National labor leaders have been conspicuously silent. Any state employees believing that elected officials are now going to turn around and negotiate a better-for-them deal are clearly not thinking straight; no one in the legislature or the governor’s office has any reason to stick their necks out for the unions now.
Sen. Edith Prague, hardly a union-busting lawmaker herself, wondered if some state employees were just out of their minds. The unions “will never get another thing out of me,” the quotable Prague remarked in disgust. Nor should they.
Malloy has long threatened a draconian “Plan B” budget that slashes services, lays off thousands, and puts a huge burden on towns and cities. There is no reason not to think that this is exactly what will be put into place. The governor has called a special session for next week, and lawmakers will probably end up approving a budget slightly less destructive than Malloy’s original. Whatever the outcome, budget cuts and higher taxes are coming to your town, courtesy of a small minority of state employees.
The failure of the concession agreement is a turning point in the history of labor relations in Connecticut. This kind of disaster can’t be allowed to happen again. The 80 percent or all-but-two-unions threshold is clearly too high; that the vast majority of state employees are about to be punished for the foolish actions of a few is clearly unfair.
Collective bargaining laws need to be re-examined, certainly, and perhaps the entire way that state employees and elected officials interact needs to be torn down and rebuilt. Does the old industrial model of labor relations, created for 20th century conditions, really make sense for a 21st century state?
For now, we’ll wait for the legislature to meet next week to decide where we go from here. I’m going to swallow my own disappointment in exchange for worry about my town, the state’s economy, the thousands who may find themselves unjustly out of work soon, and the future of the services so many needy people depend upon. Someone has to.
Susan Bigelow is the former owner of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and cats.