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Conn. labor deal ratification faces challenges

By Susan Haigh
Associated Press / May 22, 2011

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HARTFORD, Conn.—Republican legislative leaders might be convinced that unionized state workers will rush to sign off on a tentative labor savings deal reached by Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's administration, but union leaders maintain they've got a lot of work to do to sell the givebacks to their members.

Despite the promise of no layoffs for four years, three years of wage increases following a two-year freeze and the continuation of coveted benefits such as pensions, retiree health care and longevity bonuses, there's skepticism and leeriness about the deal among many of the state's 45,000 unionized workers. Some want promises that big businesses and wealthy taxpayers will be asked to pay more if they agree to givebacks. Some simply want to see the details.

"Inmates try to play you for everything, so we're smart enough to see through the garbage," said Ray Soucy, a correction officer and treasurer for one of three Department of Correction union locals. "That's what my guys want. They don't want to see the garbage. They want to see the real deal."

The deal reached between Malloy's administration and the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition, which represents 15 state employee unions, was announced May 13. Rank-and-file members began hearing some of the first official details on May 16 and they are expected to receive the official tentative agreement next week. Thirteen of 15 unions and 80 percent of voting union members need to approve the changes to the health and pension benefit changes, while each of the 34 bargaining units need to approve wage changes to their contracts.

Malloy had originally sought $2 billion over two years in labor savings to help balance the two-year, $40.1 billion budget he has already signed into law. This tentative agreement, which makes changes to current and future workers' wages, health care and retirement benefits, covers $1.6 billion of that savings. Malloy's budget director is working on a plan to cover the remaining $400 million.

House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, has criticized the proposal for not including enough substantial concessions when taxes are being raised $1.4 billion in the first year of the budget and $1.2 billion in the second, and for relying on what he called "fantasy" savings. Cafero said he's confident the union agreement will ultimately be ratified because it's a good deal for workers.

"The rank and file I've talked to I think have echoed the remarks of Representative (Zeke) Zalaski, where he said his union would jump through hoops to grab this deal," Cafero said. Zalaski is president of his union local at Associated Spring in Southington.

But Sal Luciano, executive director of AFSCME Council 4, said he's received hate mail over the tentative agreement. And he said some members are particularly angry at Malloy, a Democrat who relied heavily on state union support in last year's close governor's race. Luciano said those workers could take out their anger when it comes time to ratify the contract changes.

"They want candidate Malloy," said Luciano, referring to Malloy's promises on the campaign trail to listen to opinions and concerns of front-line state workers. "If they get the sense that they'll be respected and listened to, that buys them yes votes."

Malloy, who often speaks publicly about how his late mother helped to organize a union when he was a child, is aware that some state employees are upset with his original, public demand for $2 billion in savings and concessions. But Roy Occhiogrosso, his senior adviser, said Malloy is trying to save the state employee system by making changes to the state's pension and health care programs that will financially shore up workers' benefits for the long-run.

"He believes people should have job security. He believes they should have good health care and pension benefits. It's just the levels of each of those things were not sustainable," Occhiogrosso said.

"And as opposed to what's happening in other states .. he's not doing anything to undermine collective bargaining or people's right to organize. He supports it 100 percent," Occhiogrosso added.

Matt O'Connor, a spokesman for SEBAC, said Malloy can curry favor with rank-and-file workers by acknowledging the sacrifice they're making with this agreement, which comes on the heels of a concession package SEBAC reached with former Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell in 2009. He suggested Malloy also refocus on ways to more fairly share the burden of Connecticut's deficit problems -- $3.3 billion as of July 1 -- with those who can most afford to pay for it, namely the wealthy, banks and corporations. O'Connor says that issue is missing from the debate over how to balance the budget.

"If he wants this agreement to pass, he needs to do that," O'Connor said.

"That's the piece of the puzzle that's been so obviously vacant from this discussion about how you get the economy moving again," he added. "What I'm hearing from members over and over again, it does feel like working and middle class families, not just us as public employees, but anyone who's not in the top five percent. We're the ones who've been taking it on the chin for the last decade."