Just one day after the state employee unions and the governor both held press conferences celebrating the passage of a negotiated concession agreement, union leaders described their relationship with the governor as rocky.
The $1.6 billion agreement was touted as a victory by both sides Thursday but labor leaders said a lack of communication and the more than 3,000 layoffs issued by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy after unions rejected the first agreement in June have tarnished their relationship with him.
Union support was a crucial factor in edging Malloy into office by a slim margin over Republican Tom Foley. None of the labor leaders who spoke to reporters at the state Capitol Friday felt they would have gotten a better deal had Foley been elected, but they were critical of how Malloy handled the process
“I think when we worked so hard for his campaign, I thought the communication would be a little bit better,” said Council 4 AFSCME Executive Director Sal Luciano. “Being put in a corner and asked for $2 billion was a difficult situation.”
NEHCEU, District 1199/SEIU President Carmen Boudier said the unions’ relationship with Malloy has suffered over the last six months. Now union leaders will have to work to refocus their members and rebuild that relationship, she said. That may take time since a lot of union members spent the entire campaign actively pushing for Malloy, she said.
“Those members that gave all they had to make sure he got elected, we feel now we have to go back and rebuild it because there’s some people that are really still upset,” she said.
“I think this governor didn’t come in working that well with these folks,” said Dan Livingston, the State Employee Bargaining Agent Coalition’s chief negotiator. “His communication could have been better as a boss. The respect shown to front line workers as a boss could have been better and it would have made this process easier.”
There’s a learning curve to dealing with organized workers, he said. Hopefully next time Malloy will choose to work in a more cooperative way.
CSEA/SEIU Local 2001 President Patrice Peterson agreed. She said that it had been a rough few months but she and her members would prefer to look forward rather than backwards.
“We had a choice about either having a seat at the table or not having a seat at the table. This was a very rocky road it was very difficult, there were tough negotiations, tough debates about what we consider to be basic in terms of our rights and our benefits,” she said.
Even after those difficult debates, the unions still have a seat at the table, she said.
For his part, Malloy seemed less concerned with what effect the process has had on his relationship with the unions. In a Thursday statement he praised the agreement and said that, unlike most other states it was accomplished in Connecticut without going to war on public employees.
“We’ve shown what’s possible when management and labor work together in a respectful fashion,” he said.
Speaking to the media later in the day, Malloy acknowledged that some feathers had been ruffled in the process but said it was necessary. He said throughout he had been respectful, never questioning the unions’ right to organize and negotiate. Those rights are fundamental to maintaining the relationship he wants to have with the public sector workers, he said.
All things considered, Malloy said he was feeling pretty good about that relationship.
“Compared to how other states have done it, we in Connecticut can be proud,” he said.
Even if their rapport has suffered, the governor’s administration and labor unions will be continuing to work together in the coming months to identify $180 million in savings proposed by employees and management to find efficiencies in state government.
Office of Policy and Management Secretary Ben Barnes acknowledged that those meetings will be taking place after a difficult period between the two parties but said he’s hoping any lingering animosity will pass.
“Clearly I, the governor and the administration are committed to having a positive relationship with our employees in which we’re all committed to and finding ways to make government more cost effective,” he said.
While both sides are hopeful their relationship will mend, the contentious process and ultimate ratification of the agreement highlight the diminished clout of the labor movement both in Connecticut and nationwide.
When unions initially rejected the concessions package, many members were hopeful that a trip back to the negotiating table would yield a more favorable deal. But Malloy refused to budge and in the end it was ratified anyway.
“You can draw two lessons from this, you can say to yourself that the labor movement is not as strong as it ought to be because the truth is there should have been much more sacrifices by the very rich and that working families are not strong enough right now to create a fair tax structure and we all have to work together to improve that,” said Livingston.
The state’s unions reluctantly agreed to the concessions, while last year wealthy residents were given an extension of the Bush tax breaks which were greater than their entire state income tax, he said. Working class families didn’t get anything like that, he said.
SEBAC spokesman Matt O’Connor said the decline of the unions has been a reality across the country for years.
“Today there are fewer workers in unions than there have been since before the Great Depression,” he said.
In order to strengthen the movement leaders will have to organize and educate workers about the value of having a louder voice when joined with others who share their interests, he said. In the absence of representation workers are on their own with their bosses, he said.
“It’s a mini dictatorship and employers like it that way,” he said.
Livingston said that the movement needs to rebuild and become a more powerful voice for the working class but he defended the state employee unions and the deal they reached with the governor.
“We’re alive and kicking, we’re strong and the members stood up and got themselves an agreement that is going to protect decent jobs and decent benefits well into the future,” he said.