Union uses attack on longevity bonuses to rally workers

A major state employee union is using last spring’s unsuccessful bid to cancel longevity bonuses for senior, non-union state employees to rally support for its long-running battle to allow managers to bargain collectively.

An affiliate of the Connecticut State Employees Association/Service Employees International Union sent out letters last week to about 2,500 non-union managers reminding them of a March 11 proposal from the House Republican Caucus to cancel about $4.7 million in bonus payments due in April.

“We fought long and hard and succeeded in preserving longevity for managers, for now,” reads the letter sent by the Association of Managerial Employees in the Connecticut State Service. Formerly known as the State Managers Association of Connecticut, the affiliate of CSEA/SEIU Local 2001 is not a union itself, but provides representation to its 240 members at disciplinary meetings. “The one way to ensure raises and that no changes are made to longevity payments for managers is to secure the right of collective bargaining for managers.”

The association, which also provides assistance to groups of state managers trying to unionize, has been part of a larger battle waged for decades between state administrations and employee unions over the right of managers to bargain collectively.

About 2,500 managers in the state’s workforce currently do not belong to unions. Current law establishes several criteria for defining a “manager,” including the ability to oversee personnel, to hire and fire staff,  to set agency goals, and policy, oversight of a major unit within a department. Employees who meet multiple criteria are deemed managers, a standard union leaders long have argued are vague, and ultimately a poor test for defining management.

A 2001 effort to unionize lieutenants who oversee correction officers within the prison system survived a court challenge from former Gov. John G. Rowland’s administration. Five years later Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s administration went to court to block state police captains and lieutenants from forming a union. Earlier this year the state Supreme Court tossed out a trial court’s ruling that allowed them to bargain collectively, remanding the case back to the trial court.

State employee unions backed legislation last year that not only would have allowed state police captains and lieutenants to unionize, but also would have opened the door for most managers to do so as well. That measure was approved by two legislative committees, but died from inaction on the House calendar when the regular 2010 General Assembly session ended on May 5.

“The reality is there are a lot of positions classified as management that really aren’t,” CSEA spokesman Matt O’Connor said Wednesday, adding that administrations have used a murky statute to save dollars at the expense of employees who have risen through the ranks. “The merit system within state government is broken. Those workers who have unions have been able to work around that. Those others are stuck.”

Those who are “stuck,” O’Connor added, are singled out to sacrifice unfairly.

The union spokesman was referring to last spring when state officials were grappling with a $518.4 million deficit projected for an overall budget of $18.64 billion for the 2009-10 fiscal year. Thanks to a $323 million deficit-mitigation plan –  which raided $240 million in emergency reserve funds originally assigned to 2010-11- and a last-minute surge in tax revenues, Connecticut finished last year $393 million in the black.

But when the deficit still loomed large, Republicans, who hold 37 out of 151 seats in the House, argued state government couldn’t afford the millions of dollars in bonuses it issues most years.

Unionized employees had agreed to a one-year wage freeze in 2009-10 as part of a concession package ratified by the legislature in 2009. Non-union managers also faced a pay freeze in 2009, but labor leaders have argued managers’ raises in general haven’t kept pace with those granted to union members.

State government issues longevity bonuses in October and April. For non-union workers, the April installment was worth just under $4.7 million.

Republicans weren’t alone in backing that cut. Majority Democrats in the state Senate built it into a much-larger deficit-reduction plan that used also tax hikes, spending cuts, and a raid on budget reserves. Rell threatened to veto it and the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives ultimately chose not to run that package.

All parties later negotiated a compromise deficit-mitigation bill that didn’t cancel longevity raises or impose tax hikes.

Rep. Craig Miner of Litchfield, ranking House Republican on the Appropriations Committee, said Wednesday that while he would have preferred to see the longevity bonuses canceled as part of a broader package that included more givebacks from all workers – both union and non-union – labor leaders need to start realizing that major sacrifices are needed to resolve the $3.4 billion deficit projected for 2011-12.

“I think some individuals in Hartford do anything they can to create turmoil,” Miner said, adding he believes most rank-and-file unionized state workers understand Connecticut faces a fiscal crisis. “They feel just as concerned as I do about the state’s position.”

But Sen. Tony Guglielmo of Stafford, ranking GOP senator on the Labor & Public Employees Committee, said he favors the legislation that would allow most state managers to bargain collectively.

“As a general rule, I have been in favor of that,” he said. “Individuals standing against the state of Connecticut don’t have much of a chance.”

Guglielmo added that this past spring’s effort to cancel longevity bonuses, like many other controversial budget-balancing measures, failed because it was short-sighted – not because it involved asking workers to sacrifice.

“Connecticut still hasn’t come up with a plan that deals with our entire deficit and that shares the pain,” Guglielmo said, adding that the $3.4 billion shortfall projected for 2011-12 equals nearly one-fifth of all current spending. “So far it’s been deferrals and delays. We shouldn’t try to single anyone out until we can show people we’re really ready to deal with the problem.”