Christine Stuart file photo


One of the most intriguing aspects of the beginning of a new year after an election cycle is the jockeying for position among various special interests in advance of the legislative session in Hartford.

To wit, public-sector labor unions appear poised to collect some serious chits from Gov. Dannel P. Malloy after rallying the troops to ignore labor activist Jonathan Pelto and hold their noses to vote for a guy they really didn’t care for.

In an interview earlier this week with the Associated Press, Lori Pelletier, executive secretary-treasurer of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, said, “Our policy program was the difference in the governor winning by such a margin.”

Pelletier promised that organized labor will push hard for the state’s proposed public retirement plan and she added that unions will also advocate for representation and bargaining rights for more workers, including those in agriculture and certain employees of probate courts and charter schools.

I’d argue that the payback to unions began well before Malloy’s re-election. Since beginning his second year in office by offending the state’s 44,000 teachers with a foolish statement about tenure and passing a controversial reform package hated by the educational establishment, Malloy did somersaults to win back the support of public school teachers.

He delayed the implementation of an unpopular new teacher evaluation system, distanced himself from some aspects of the Common Core State Standards and proposed exempting half of the pension income of Connecticut’s teachers from the state income tax. Four months in advance of his re-election, Malloy quietly announced he was showing the door to Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor, the lightning rod who had spearheaded many of the governor’s most controversial initiatives.

Malloy also pushed hard for — and signed — a significant increase in the minimum wage. He signed two executive orders that paved the way for state child care workers and personal care attendants to organize and gain collective bargaining rights. And don’t forget the law Malloy signed — the first such law in the nation — mandating paid sick leave in the private sector.

After Tom Foley let slip that he was yearning for a “Wisconsin moment” in Connecticut — a reference to the GOP-led curtailing of public-sector collective bargaining rights in the Badger State — Malloy seized on his Republican opponent’s gaffe, boasting to delegates at the AFL-CIO’s political convention that “I stand with labor. I always have. I always will.

But for all his actions and rhetoric on behalf of labor, Malloy has played good-cop-bad-cop, a posture that suggests he’s aware of possible peril down the road. His advocacy for charter schools and his derogatory comments about the teaching profession — borne, no doubt, of his experiences as a child with severe learning disabilities — scored points with parents who have also had unpleasant experiences with tenured teachers in public schools.

After he took office in 2011, Malloy was confronted with a $3.7 billion budget deficit. In a display of brinkmanship, he presented state employee unions with a plan to wring $1.6 billion in labor concessions from them — or he would start issuing pink slips. In the end, most of the unions caved. And there was his justified opposition to a state law mandating 1,248 sworn state troopers, angering the state police union.

Be that as it may, the larger question for Democrats is what to do about their public-sector labor problem. Once upon a time, improving pay and benefits for government workers was a popular goal. Now, as private-sector workers see their wages stagnate and their benefits cut, they look on in dismay as it’s pretty much business as usual for their counterparts in the public sector.

At a certain point, the whole system becomes unsustainable. Taxpayers have revolted — and not just in right-wing states. In Wisconsin, for example, Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who campaigned on the collective bargaining rollback, has won three elections in four years (election, recall election and re-election), even as President Obama carried the state handily in 2008 and 2012. Walker and Obama won Wisconsin by similar margins, which tells us that hundreds of thousands of voters who supported Obama’s progressive agenda were also concerned about the costs and inefficiencies of state government.

Therein lies a real problem for state Democrats. Rapidly escalating costs for defined-benefit pensions and retirement healthcare for state employees present a grim scenario: less money for roads, schools and the social services progressives cherish. Democrats had better figure out how to solve that problem — or a Wisconsin moment in the Nutmeg State could still be in the offing.

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com and is news editor of The Berkshire Record in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill.

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