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State employee union leaders came to an agreement with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy on a package of concessions that would, among other things, freeze wages, ask active employees to pay more into their 401(k)s, require furlough days, and increase insurance premiums. It’s a lot to bear. But what are they going to do? Strike? Get laid off? Go down with the ship?

“This framework and potential savings are a clear example of why collective bargaining is so imperative for our state,” said a spokeswoman for SEBAC after the framework was released. “Without collective bargaining, the billions of dollars in savings would not have been realized.”

Sure it would have. They would have just cut all your salaries and benefits, closed a bunch of DMVs and colleges and prisons, and laid off tons of workers, just like in the private sector. Collective bargaining is a shield against the government exploiting its workers whenever it can’t make ends meet.

But, in situations like the unending budget crises we’ve been facing for nearly a decade, the unions have no choice but to bargain. The hope is that they’ll make the cuts as painless as possible, and protect the workers who remain from layoffs in the future. That’s the trap they’ve been stuck in since the 2008 financial crisis cratered the economy and tax revenue.

Here’s the problem. Once, long ago in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the state had tons of money. Budget surpluses were put aside in the rainy day fund, or passed out in tax rebate checks. In those lovely bygone days of plenty the unions and Gov. John G. Rowland cooked up an expansive and generous salary and benefit package, which the legislature approved. And why not? There was plenty to go around.

All was well until the economy crashed. The state was suddenly saddled with an impossible contract and no money to pay for it.

So, in late 2008 Gov. M. Jodi Rell began talking with union leaders about concessions, and that’s been the cycle we’ve been stuck in ever since. Every year these conversations about concessions, cuts, and layoffs happen, and state employees have, when they’re not being laid off, steadily been giving back pieces of that 1997 contract, a little at a time.

The world is a different place, clearly, than it was back then. Most strikingly, there’s little support at all in the legislature for the unions to get a better deal. After all, when it’s a choice between cutting some of the money going to state employees or, say, slashing mental health services, the state employees are going to lose every time.

Is this a good deal for the state and the state employees? Not really. These concessions are going to disproportionately hit newer employees, and it’s demoralizing to realize that people who retired just ahead of you are going to get a much sweeter deal. The wage freezes are hard to stomach, and even though there’s a promise of no layoffs in the next four years, there’s no guarantee of that. If the state runs into even more trouble, which it will, that could be up for negotiation again. On the state end, there are plenty of people arguing that the deal doesn’t go far enough, and that not enough savings will be realized. Plus, the state workforce is going to have even less morale than it does now.

And yet, there’s not much choice. It’s either this or the layoff notices that have already gone out become real. The choice is to accept the agreement or face Armageddon.

In 2011 a few of the unions did just that by voting down a concessions deal. The blowback was harsh, and the consequences severe. The agreement was eventually approved but the damage had been done. Unions have been on the defensive ever since.

Union leaders are faced with the task of selling the plan to workers who feel they’ve given up enough already. Many of them want to see the rich and large corporations pay more taxes — which almost certainly won’t happen. Workers, not wanting a repeat of 2011’s disaster, will probably fall in line.

It’s a sad situation. Back in 1997, the unions were in control, they were strong, and their workers were well taken care of. Now, thanks to new economic realities, they’re fighting a retreating action just to save what little they have left.

And if that’s not the story of the last 50 years writ small, I don’t know what is.

Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.

DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.

Susan Bigelow

Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.