A coalition of state employees who represent bargaining units dedicated to public safety rallied on the north steps of the state Capitol to “fight back” against calls for layoffs and changes to their health and pension benefits.
More than 500, according to state Capitol police, attended the rally.
They opened with a chant calling for Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who has called for layoffs and an opportunity to reopen their health and pension benefit contract, to come speak with them, but the governor was not in the building at the time.
Later in the day union workers moved inside the state Capitol and lined up along the rails. They “booed” Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman as she walked by them to speak at an event in the Old Judiciary Room. The encounter highlighted the tension between the two sides, who worked together in 2011 to find $1.6 billion in concessions at a time when the state was digging itself out of a $3.67 billion hole — a single-year deficit that was more than 16.5 times the size of this year’s, which was $220 million.
Lawmakers resolved the current year’s deficit on Tuesday, but have a long way to go to rectify next year’s deficit, which is around $900 million. But the unions are upset the administration has come back before the contract expires in 2022 to ask for more concessions.
Outside at the rally, Charles DellaRocco, a state Supreme Court Police Officer and President of AFSCME Local 749, said there’s a budget deficit and Malloy and legislative leaders want to balance the budget on their backs.
“They want to lay us off,” DellaRocco said. “They want to slash or eliminate the vital protective services we provide.”
He said they want them to “accept a special tax increase on middle class state employees in the form of contract concessions.”
Collin Provost, president of AFSCME Local 391, which represents correction officers, said they are taxpayers too and they expect their elected officials to treat them fairly.
“We should all be taxed equally,” Provost said.
The unions are arguing that any further concessions would be a tax increase on state employees.
Sara Johannesen, a correction officer with AFSCME Local 1565, said the health and benefit portion of the contract doesn’t expire until 2022 and there’s no reason to open it now.
Johannesen, who works at Bridgeport Correctional Center, said the job is both physically and mentally taxing.
She said a correction officer’s life expectancy is only 59 years, so they need to have the proper health benefits. As far as pension benefits go, she said there’s no reason to convert them to a 401K.
Democratic and Republican legislative leaders were able to reach a budget deal to close the 2016 budget deficit. Even though the package didn’t explicitly say there would be layoffs, Malloy maintained that layoffs before June 9 will be substantial.
At a press conference in his state Capitol office Tuesday afternoon after the vote, Malloy reiterated that a there would be a “substantial number of layoffs in the not too distant future.”
Malloy said there’s little the state will able to do to avoid them. The number of retirements, which will be known by April 1, will impact some of that number, but “state government is going to be substantially smaller next year than it is this year.”
He said there’s no way to balance next year’s budget without beginning the process of laying off state employees this year.
Rep. David Alexander, D-Enfield, said in 2009 when former Gov. M. Jodi Rell was looking at laying off 5,000 state employees, her administration estimated that it would only save about $340 million.
At the moment the state is looking at laying off far fewer employees, but Malloy has said those layoffs are necessary to reduce the size of state government to match the state’s “new economic reality.”
Alexander, who was one of 11 Democrats to vote against last year’s budget, said he would take back the sales tax the legislature dedicated to transportation and property tax reform in order to balance the budget.
Alexander argued that the state doesn’t have enough transportation engineers to implement the projects related to the borrowing the state has already done.
Rep. Russ Morin, D-Wethersfield, told the crowd Tuesday that he’s a labor guy and he will continue to fight for them during these difficult budget times.
“Are you the cause of the problem?” Morin asked the crowd. “No,” they replied.
Morin said he supports allowing the unions and the Malloy administration sitting down in a formal way to discuss their points of view. He said he thinks they’re willing to talk about savings, “but I don’t think they’re willing to talk about pension and healthcare.”
The members of SEBAC would have to vote in order to open the contract, which doesn’t expire until 2022.
“What has to happen is the governor has to talk to all of SEBAC,” Morin said. “He’s been trying to do it piecemeal.”
House Majority Leader Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, also attended the rally.
He said he thinks both non-union and union employees should have ongoing discussions with the administration about the level of benefits they receive.
He said currently 14 of the 15 unions are negotiating with the administration over wages and working conditions.
“That’s where the real money is at,” Aresimowicz said.
House Speaker Brendan Sharkey, Senate President Martin Looney, Malloy, and Republican legislative leaders have all called upon the unions to open the contract.