Under attack for decades of bad decisions regarding their pensions, Connecticut’s labor unions are uniting to fight back against a bill that would exempt retirement benefits from collective bargaining.
Described in emails to their union brothers and sisters as “an all hands on deck moment,” the labor community will be at the Capitol on Tuesday to oppose the legislation.
The Labor and Public Employees Committee public hearing on the House Bill 5552 will start at 3 p.m. in room 2E of the Legislative Office Building in Hartford.
“This bill would take public employee pensions out of collective bargaining, leaving them to the unilateral whim of whichever politician happens to be in charge at any given time,” according to an email from CSEA SEIU Local 2001. “HB 5552 would bring us a step closer to Wisconsin, where Republican Gov. (and Koch Bros. puppet) Scott Walker and the Republican legislature destroyed collective bargaining and made the state a worse place to live and do business.”
Council 4 AFSCME described the legislation as the “most odious of more than 100 proposed bills attacking the rights of working people to have a public hearing, and among the most egregious.”
At the moment, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and a coalition of bargaining groups are the only two entities at the state level that can negotiate retirement benefits for state employees.
The current contract with the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition doesn’t expire until 2022. In order to reopen the contract and renegotiate those retirement benefits, the governor would have to get the unions to agree through a vote of their leaders.
The legislation would only seek to take away negotiating for retirement benefits from “recently hired and future employees.” Retired state employees can claim a property right to their pensions, making it much more difficult for lawmakers to change agreements made by previous administrations.
The legislation, which was proposed by three Greenwich Republican state Reps. Fred Camillo, Mike Bocchino, and Livvy Floren, also seeks to exempt retirement benefits from collective bargaining at the municipal level.
House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, recently proposed changes to the state employees retirement system. Before the legislature voted on a refinancing plan for the state pension fund, Klarides and her Republican colleagues in the Senate said lawmakers should also adopt a defined contribution retirement plan for new hires, increase employee pension contributions to 4 percent, and cap cost of living adjustments to 2 percent.
All those proposals would have to go through collective bargaining, but Republican lawmakers argued it would save state taxpayers approximately $100 million annually and should be considered.
Democrats were able to find enough support to pass the refinancing proposal last month. But it’s unclear how long they will be able to hold onto those votes.
In previous years, a bill challenging collective bargaining wouldn’t even get a public hearing. However, this year is not like previous years.
The Republicans were able to split the state Senate and pick up eight seats in the House where Democrats still hold a slight 78-72 advantage.
The last time the Connecticut legislature wanted to look tough on collective bargaining was in 2011 when union membership rejected the first attempt by the Malloy administration to get $1.6 billion in concessions.
At that time, the Senate passed a bill on a 30-6 vote that would have changed how retirement benefits were calculated. The legislation would have changed the definition of “salary” for pension calculations in order to exclude overtime, longevity, fees or any other payment.
It passed with broad support on both sides of the aisle after a debate marked by uncommon agreement.
However, the House never had any intention of taking up the legislation that year. It was used to send a message to the unions to vote for the concession package.