At a recent forum on the Connecticut economy in Greenwich where I was a panelist, I expected a little back and forth on labor union issues with Ned Lamont, a recent Democratic candidate for both governor and the U.S. Senate.
Lamont surprised me by saying that while he isn’t as concerned as I am about public sector compensation, he was very critical of our current governor and past governors for not having a “backbone” when negotiating with public sector unions over work rules.
Next year our state lawmakers will vote on 12 union contracts — all but one of the existing contracts. Well, some lawmakers will vote. If past practice holds true, the contracts will float through the process, without ever coming up for a full vote in the legislature.
This year, as our state’s economy sputters, the members of the General Assembly should not let this happen. These contracts need an open and full vetting by legislators.
And contrary to what House Majority Leader Joe Aresimowicz says — who, it should be noted, works full-time for AFSCME, the state’s largest public employees union — all options should be on the table for negotiators. Lawmakers should not be bound by past contracts and practices, as they have to consider what the climate is in the state today.
Unfortunately, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy locked the state into a benefits contract until 2022. The contracts negotiated next year will include salary adjustments and work rules — still fertile ground.
Work rules are what Lamont was referring to at the forum. I called him yesterday to get further clarification on his remarks.
“If I were governor I would make changing those work rules a priority,” he said. “We need to give more discretion to managers and superintendents to do the work that needs to be done.”
Lamont, who runs a telecommunications company, said he pays his employees well, but in return he expects them to work as a team to get things done.
“I’m not looking to fire people, but I am looking to say we’ll have to upgrade your skills so you can compete in the new economy,” he said. “The new economy has passed state government by.”
While advances in technology have increased productivity in almost every industry, state government has been slow to embrace these developments. Witness the recent “upgrade” at the DMV, which somehow, inexplicably, has made things worse; or the news that it takes the state’s comptroller’s office six years to figure out how much to pay pensioners.
Why is that? Spend some time reading the state’s union contracts, and you’ll quickly see why.
Take the “Administrative/Clerical” contract, which is up for negotiation next year. There are some real goodies within its pages.
For example, did you know that up to 250 union stewards receive super-seniority within their classifications? That means they are the last ones who can be fired. That’s in Section 8, “Union Rights.”
In Section 7, “Union Security,” the contract lays out the rules governing how unions get their dues. All state employees in unionized jobs have to pay dues to the unions if they want to maintain their employment, whether they like it or not. And those dues are deducted on behalf of the unions by the state through payroll services.
Theoretically, state employees can quit their unions and get a sliver of those dues back — the portion that pays for political activity — if they don’t agree with union actions.
For example, at its recent convention the Connecticut chapter of the AFL-CIO approved a resolution in October that demanded that the U.S. government “apply all diplomatic and economic tools to bring an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestine.” The resolution also said the union would not invest in companies that profit from the “occupation.”
It would not be surprising if some members of the AFL-CIO, which is the parent union of most of Connecticut’s public employee unions, did not agree with this policy. But they will find they have few options to voice their opposition.
In addition, union stewards are allowed to do work for the union while on the clock for the state, during their regular working hours.
In Article 8, Section Nine, the “Administrative/Clerical” contract says up to 40 union stewards will get five paid days off to attend the annual AFSCME convention, and another three paid days off to attend the annual AFL-CIO convention. That adds up to an awful lot of union business being conducted on the taxpayer’s dime.
The contracts also spell out rules governing scheduling, seniority, “bumping,” evaluations, grievance procedures, and on and on.
And let’s not forget overtime.
If, for example, an employee gets called in for overtime unexpectedly, they will get paid for four hours at a minimum, regardless of how much time they actually work.
Paid overtime is one of the reasons our pension system, and our budget, is so deeply stressed. And it’s hard to know if that overtime is necessary, or if it’s overused.
The Yankee Institute, where I work, runs a website called CTSunlight.org. On it, you can look up state employee salaries.
The most prolific users of this website are state employees themselves. The other day, a state employee called me and asked for help as she navigated the site.
This woman was nearing her retirement, and she wanted to look up how much she’s been paid the past few years so she can estimate how much her pension will be. Her pension will be based on her three highest years of earnings, although for new hires that was changed to five years.
In 2010 and 2014, this woman earned around $75,000 a year in salary. But in 2012 and 2013, she earned over $93,000 a year. Overtime, she explained.
The overtime spigot needs to be turned off. The relationship between overtime and pensions is unfair to taxpayers, and creates terrible incentives inside state government.
This definitely calls for leadership with a little “backbone.”
Suzanne Bates is the policy director for the Yankee Institute for Public Policy. She lives in South Windsor with her family. Follow her on Twitter @suzebates.
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