Workers on the picket line outside Sunrise Northeast headquarters in Hartford Credit: Christine Stuart / CTNewsJunkie.com
TERRY COWGILL
TERRY COWGILL

Is it possible to pull a muscle from shaking your head in disbelief? I’m about to find out because the state Senate has pulled a move that defies gravity, logic, and all good common sense.

As reported earlier this month by my colleague Hugh McQuaid, the Senate voted largely along party lines – you can easily guess which party voted which way – to approve legislation allowing striking workers to become eligible for unemployment benefits after just two weeks on the picket line.

That’s right. Lawmakers in the Land of Steady Habits have tried to upend decades of tradition and the time-tested relationship between employer and worker by extending unemployment benefits to employees who voluntarily walk off the job.

“When you look at it, you say to yourself: ‘This is from The Onion, right? This can’t be real,'” radio talk show host Paul Pacelli of WICC radio in Bridgeport said last week, before concluding that, “This is not spoofing Connecticut, because this is who we are.”

Senate Bill 317, also known as “An Act Concerning Unemployment For Striking Employees,” came out of the joint Labor and Public Employees Committee, where it “was one of several controversial proposals to come out” of the committee, McQuaid reported. You mean, there were others that move the outrage needle like Bill 317?

But I digress. Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff framed the legislation as a matter of equity for workers, affording them “a little bit of a sense of evenness and fairness for them so that they can bargain in good faith.” Of course, this is ludicrous. Negotiating in good faith simply means making a serious and honest effort to reach an agreement. If union workers aren’t already negotiating the terms of their employment in good faith, then they deserve to fail.

Requiring the employer to, in effect, provide a financial cushion to striking workers does not further the goal of bargaining in good faith and – one could argue – is fundamentally unfair to taxpayers footing the bill through higher unemployment insurance premiums.

You could probably count on one hand the number of issues on which I agree with right-wing Republican Rep. Eric Berthel, but he correctly pointed out the cognitive dissonance of the bill’s misguided supporters.

“That is one of the tenets of being able to collect unemployment – you have to be ready to go back to work and they’re not because they’re on strike,” Berthel told McQuaid.

In addition to nearly every Republican at the Capitol, the usual suspects quickly lined up against the bill, as well they should: the Connecticut Business & Industry Association; the Republican American editorial page; and the Yankee Institute, the Hartford-based libertarian think tank widely loathed by labor unions in the state.

“The irony of this bill is not lost on employers, who are the sole revenue source for the unemployment trust fund, and already face a 22% hike in their unemployment taxes because of the pandemic,” said Eric Gjede, CBIA’s chief lobbyist at the Capitol.

“Forcing taxpayers to fund disruptions to the markets they rely on is about as backward as a public policy can be,” thundered the Republican American, adding that the state’s “unemployment program is structured to avoid incentivizing people to abandon the workplace.”

Furthermore, most unions maintain so-called “strike funds” that help workers make ends meet during work stoppages. If Bill 317 passes, what will become of that money? Will the unions return it to members or reduce the dues it collects from workers? Perhaps the unions could help make up the resulting shortfalls that the Lamont administration expects in the unemployment insurance trust fund.

As it often does in such matters, the state Republican Central Committee overreacted, suggesting in a tweeted meme that some Democratic lawmakers have a conflict of interest in supporting the legislation.

Heck, you could argue that any lawmaker who owns a business has a conflict of interest because they will pay higher unemployment insurance benefits if Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont signs SB 317.

Meanwhile, Lamont’s labor commissioner, Danté Bartolomeo, warned that the bill “may affect the solvency of the UI Trust Fund.” A businessman for most of his life, a mystified Lamont mused, with classic Lamontian understatement, that the bill “sounds pretty novel.”

Senate Bill 317 is highly unusual, but not unheard of. Then-New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed similar legislation on the eve of the pandemic in 2020 and another such law passed four years ago in New Jersey, but in most cases benefits for striking Garden State workers only kick in after 30 days. Like Connecticut, both of those states have struggled with budget deficits over the last several years, though the most recent shortfalls have been mitigated by federal coronavirus relief funds.

The bottom line is that – even if it never passes in the House, as some observers suspect – Senate Bill 317 nonetheless sends a dreadful message to companies that are considering relocating or starting up here. Depending on which source you use, a small percentage of the state’s private-sector workforce – between 6 and 8% – is unionized. Still, even nonunion companies will have second thoughts about coming here – either because Senate Bill 317 bespeaks an oppressive business environment or because those companies will be hit with a double whammy if their workers do eventually organize.

Finally, Duff, Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, and other state lawmakers supporting the bill might want to get their own houses in order before they pontificate on leveling the playing field for labor. You see, this legislation won’t affect state workers.

Despite the fact that nearly 75% of Connecticut’s public sector workforce is unionized, state workers are prohibited from striking under Connecticut General Law. So the burdens of Senate Bill 317, if the House passes it and Lamont doesn’t veto it, will fall on the little people of the state’s struggling private sector. Sweet.

Terry Cowgill

Terry Cowgill

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at PolitiConn and is the retired managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at tcowgill90@wesleyan.edu.

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 or any of the author's other employers.