Hugh McQuaid Photo

Gov. Dannel Malloy hasn’t enjoyed the easiest relationship with the state’s labor unions since taking office, but he was on the picket line Wednesday morning in support of striking healthcare workers.

It wasn’t the first time the governor has gotten involved in the ongoing contract dispute between Healthbridge, a New Jersey-based nursing home company, and the New England Health Care Workers’ Union SEIU 1199. In December, after the dispute led to a lockout at one of the companies nine Connecticut facilities, Malloy issued a statement urging both sides to “find a way to work out their differences.”

But that hasn’t happened and according SEIU 1199 spokeswoman Deborah Chernoff negotiations effectively ended in mid-June. Since then Healthbridge has implemented a new contract on its employees, which includes expensive changes to their health benefits, and the elimination of pensions contributions and paid lunches, she said.

“Every benefit that made these jobs worth having… they’ve ended unilaterally,” Chernoff said.

Edmund Remillard, a spokesman for Healthbridge, said the union is to blame for the breakdown in negotiations.

“We had been negotiating in good faith with the union when it chose to abandon negotiations, jobs and our residents. For 17 months, the union made untenable demands while refusing to engage,” he said in a statement.

“Despite this distraction brought on by the union, we continue to provide our residents with the highest quality care,” Remillard added.

But last week the National Labor Relations Board issued a complaint finding that Healthbridge “failed and refused to bargain in good faith with the union” when it made the contract changes.

Malloy and Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman were welcomed guests on the picket line at Newington Health Care Center, where employees have been striking for just over a week. Eva Fal, a dietary aid worker of 16 years, said it was appropriate for the governor to get involved in the dispute because health care is an issue that affects everyone in the state.

Malloy agreed, saying “we’re all going to get old someday,” but he said the labor board’s complaint made it pretty clear Healthbridge hasn’t been playing by the rules. 

“I’m the governor and I can’t go to every picket line across the state every time and quite frankly there’s a process to these things, but what is quite clear is that process is not being respected by Healthbridge,” he said.

As governor, Malloy has had a strong track record among unionized private sector workers. As he finished up his remarks, the healthcare workers gathered around him chanted “thank you.” In May, construction workers rallied around him after the passage of a bill allowing public entities to negotiate working conditions with labor unions before a construction project goes up for bidding.

However, his relationship with public sector unions has suffered since taking office. Malloy took over as the state was facing a $3.6 billion budget deficit. It wasn’t long before he announced he’d be seeking $2 billion in benefit concessions from state workers to help close it. Last summer his administration engaged in contentious negotiations with the state employee unions that led to a $1.6 billion concession package.

The administration has had a public falling out with the state police union, a bargaining unit which refused to ratify the concessions. That dispute has most recently led to state troopers voting overwhelmingly to profess “no confidence” in the police leadership Malloy appointed.

This year, the governor also became the target of attack ads from the teachers unions after his education reform package included proposals unpopular with educators.

Larry Dorman, spokesman for AFSCME Council 4, said the contrast between Malloy’s relationship with private and public sector unions is a natural one.

“This is a governor who’s tried to chart a different path in terms of supporting workers rights and building relationships with public and private workers,” he said.

Though Dorman acknowledges that Malloy’s relationship with state workers is still tense, he said it’s inevitable given he’s their boss.

“Employer-employee relationships are naturally tense and fraught with distrust. That’s normal. Certainly last year’s SEBAC negotiations created some raw nerves but we’re moving forward,” he said.

Even if there’s distrust, Dorman said he doesn’t doubt that Malloy is genuine in his support of workers rights, a quality that distinguishes him from other governors, like Wisconsin’s Scott Walker. On Wednesday, Malloy said he didn’t want to see union-busting come to Connecticut.

“Let’s be honest, what Healthbridge is attempting to do illegally is to break the union. That’s what they want to do. They want to be the new model in the state of Connecticut and we don’t want them to be that model,” he said.

But for Chris Morrell, a chef who’s been working for Healthbridge for 30 years, said the jury is still out on the governor’s labor record.

“His story is still to be written. I think he made some of the cutbacks he thought were necessary. But coming out here today, it shows he’s getting back to his roots,” Morrell said.