As AFSCME Local 391 put the final nail in the concession package’s coffin with a 955-527 vote, lawmakers and union leaders were left at a loss Friday. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why the agreement, which preserved jobs for four years and made changes to health and pension benefits, was defeated by a minority of the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition.
“The people who voted ‘No’ have a lot of explaining to do to all the members that voted ‘Yes’,” Rep. Patricia Widlitz, D-Guilford, said Friday.
Sixty percent of the coalition voted in favor of the agreement, but AFSCME’s rejection was enough to kill the deal, denying SEBAC the 80 percent threshold it needed for approval. In the end, just two of the 15 unions rejected it.
Widlitz called the agreement’s defeat “incomprehensible” and “unfortunate.” She said she didn’t understand why members would give up job security and “outstanding health and pension benefits.”
The Value-Added Health Benefits were problematic for many union members, who expressed concern that they would have to pay more money if they didn’t lose weight or stop smoking. They also expressed concern it would enroll them in SustiNet, originally proposed as a public health care option that was later watered down to a 21-member planning board.
Those identifying themselves as union members used comment boards of various online publications to call the plan “Marxist” and said they didn’t think they should have to pay more if they didn’t want to attend annual physical exams.
State Comptroller Kevin Lembo even wrote an editorial for CTNewsjunkie to address some of the misconceptions he was hearing about the health portion of the package.
“As confusing as the changes may seem, the new health program is actually very simple. It offers the same quality health benefits currently provided, but now employees may receive financial and physical rewards for using those benefits,” Lembo wrote on June 14.
Even Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman tried to dispelled the misinformation about SustiNet in an email to all state employees, but to no avail. The rumors persisted.
Rep. Russ Morin, D-Wethersfield, who worked for the Department of Transportation for more than a decade, said all it takes is one guy to walk into the garage after hours and talk about how the state is trying to “shove Obamacare” down their throats. He said sometimes misinformation like that is all it takes.
But Morin said he heard from state employees complaining about having to contribute more money to their pensions and having to work longer in order to obtain the same benefits offered currently.
“It was all over the board,” Morin said.
Rep. Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, who belongs to one of AFSCME’s private unions, said there were structural problems with the tentative agreement from the very start.
He said the delay between the draft agreement and the tentative agreement was three weeks and allowed time for those people who wanted to see the agreement defeated to spread false information. But he said there are also those employees who don’t care about their co-workers and believe they’re safe, so why should they vote to freeze their pay another year.
He said they already feel like they gave up enough in 2009 and now the first year their wages are supposed to increase, they’re being asked to sacrifice again.
A majority of the bargaining units will be getting a 2.5 percent wage increase on July 1, as some of their co-workers are getting laid off.
Larry Dorman, spokesman for SEBAC and AFSCME, said the bottom line is members’ voices have been heard and members voices will continue to be heard. The rules of the coalition govern the voting process and those rules haven’t been revised since 1996.
“This is an example of union democracy allowing each of the individual members of the union to vote and to vote under the rules of the union they’re members of,” Matt O’Connor, another SEBAC spokesman said.
He said they’re not proceeding as if a re-vote is even an option.
“We understand the frustration they feel at this process and we’re asking them to take a step back and allow the process to play out. Voting continues today. We have two unions that have not completed their balloting and leaders have to cast their votes Monday,” O’Connor said.
The members who voted to approve the agreement voted to preserve their jobs, their co-workers’ jobs, their benefits, to be part of the solution and to reject our opponents’ scare tactics, O’Connor said.
Dorman said he’s heard from employees in offices where the viral misinformation emails spread rapidly and they believe they had an impact on the outcome of the process. The Auditor’s of Public Accounts have been asked to look into the details of those emails and determine if there was any wrongdoing.
“We understand the anger we’re hearing from lawmakers and others,” Dorman said. “We urge everyone in this building to be calm and cool and rational because we all want the same thing in the end. We don’t want to see layoffs and massive service cuts.”
But some have blamed union leadership for not getting the information out about the agreement in a timely and thoughtful fashion.
“I can tell you we did our due diligence,” O’Connor said. “We held informational sessions that were coordinated by all unions in the coalition. Collectively we had a tremendous number of meetings and informational sessions held by individual unions.”
O’Connor said the union he works for, CSEA, held more than 90 informational meetings over four weeks.
“Every effort was made to answer questions and provide information, refute the lies, the deceptive tactics of the Yankee Institute,” O’Connor said. “There’s no question a few people were able to cause a lot of damage.”
The Yankee Institute has repeatedly denied any involvement with the campaign against the agreement, which could have been waged by union members themselves.