It’s tempting, in the warm and friendly afterglow of state employee unions’ do-over approval of the concessions agreement, to believe that all has been set right. And why shouldn’t we? The deal was approved, layoffs will be averted, and the wait time at your local DMV will be reduced from brutal to merely patience-trying. Let’s be clear: Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s slash-and-burn Plan B budget would have ripped a hole in the heart of the state, both economically and psychologically, and we should all be glad it didn’t come to that.
But the absence of an apocalypse doesn’t mean that everything has been fixed. For organized labor this was a particularly poor outcome; what we saw here was organized labor in disorganized and powerless chaos. In response to the first vote, SEBAC watered down their bylaws to make the approval process much simpler. The change in bylaws turned out not to matter, but SEBAC’s scramble to alter their own rules while the governor didn’t move an inch reveals just how weak their position was.
And what, in the end, did they get for their troubles? SEBAC lost the first vote because of a disastrous failure of messaging, among other things, and only seem to have won the second round because of the very real threat of layoffs. Help for labor never arrived from either the public or the state legislature; indeed, labor’s standing with both has been diminished. Members worked to frame the approval of the deal as a victory against national anti-labor forces, but what, exactly, has been won?
Old-school organized labor used to be a powerhouse in this country. Now all that’s left of that power is the government unions, largely because the government can’t be shipped overseas (right?). Even they’re on the ropes, though. The public thinks there’s no place for the labor movement in their lives, even as wages drop, hours tick up, benefits evaporate, and stress goes through the roof. Hey, we should all just be glad we have jobs, right? That’s how bad it’s gotten.
The middle class in America has staggered from one crisis to the next for the last thirty years and more, but they haven’t turned to labor as a solution. Organized labor organizations like the AFL-CIO have largely failed to adapt their message to a changing world, and their declining clout shows it. The working and middle classes don’t feel unions speak for them anymore. That’s why state employee unions have no public support in Connecticut now, and why any public outcry at Malloy’s Plan B budget was more over inconvenience than job losses. It’s a sad fact of current politics that there was far less political will to raise taxes on our wealthiest citizens than to lay off thousands of state employees and slash services for the middle and lower classes.
Malloy won this fight by shrugging off the initial loss and sending out pink slips. His alternative budget was ruinous, but he framed it as a necessity in tough times. People bought the line; it was up to the unions to agree or not. The legislature, never a particularly proactive bunch on the best of days, was more than willing to back Malloy over the unions. Would Malloy really have fired such a huge chunk of the state workforce, adding to our economic woes and crippling state services? We’ll never know now, but he gave the impression that he’d do just that so strongly that there was a fearful stampede of votes from “no” to “yes” this time around.
What happened here for labor was the avoidance of a devastating loss, not a win. That seems to characterize our politics an awful lot, lately, doesn’t it? We avoid disaster, but we never move forward or build up any real defenses. In the end something is going to be too much for us to handle.
Yes, the deal was done, and the day was saved. But the real problems that got us to this point persist. A weak labor movement and a middle class on the brink aren’t good for the state and the country. Organized labor and state government need to find a way forward that actually strengthens both, and labor must find a way to become relevant again. Now that the dust from this latest crisis is settling, maybe the rebuilding can finally begin.
Susan Bigelow is the former owner of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and cats.