Malloy preparing for a visit to the House of Labor

Gov. Dannel P.  Malloy’s complicated relationship with the House of Labor enters a new phase this week as his administration formally opens concession talks and Malloy addresses a public gathering of union leaders and members.

Malloy, whose mother helped found a municipal union, is not new to labor relations that are nuanced, to say the least. As an urban mayor for 14 years, Malloy knew cycles of labor peace and strife, respect and enmity.

But what is labor to make of a Democratic governor, a man whose half-a-point victory they helped assure, who strenuously defends the rights of labor on national television, while mentioning he might have to lay off “thousands and thousands and thousands” of state employees?

The coalition of state employee unions has been engaging Malloy publicly with the care of a diplomat, registering expressions of concern, but saying nothing that could derail a relationship that still is slowly unwinding.

“We’re early in what’s going to be a long process,” said Larry Dorman, a spokesman for SEBAC, the State Employees Bargaining Agents Coalition.

On Wednesday, the administration and the unions have what Malloy calls their first formal meeting on his demand for $1 billion in labor savings, a number that provokes skepticism at the Capitol, given that total wages and benefits are worth about $5.4 billion. They also have been talking informally.

Malloy will address an invited audience of union leaders and representatives on Friday at a session he asked his labor commissioner, Glenn Marshall, to arrange with John Olsen, the longtime president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO.

“I think it is a venting process to some degree,” Olsen said.

Olsen likened the meeting at the Hartford Hilton to the town-hall meetings and business speeches Malloy is giving to explain and defend his plan to erase a $3.2 billion deficit. Olsen expects an audience of 150 to 175 people.

“I really think he is doing it out of respect,” said Olsen, who has criticized the governor’s budget proposal as unfair to the middle class and has asked the governor to hit the wealthy harder, rather than demand deep labor concessions.

Labor is trying to make concessions part of a broader public discussion of how Malloy’s tax-and-spending plan will affect the middle class, not just public employees. In an interview, Dorman referred more often to the middle class than to state workers.

“The discussions we’ve been having and are about to intensify with the administration will go a long way toward determining not simply how the Malloy administration views middle-class union workers, but the entire middle class,” Dorman said.

The unions will continue to push Malloy publicly to spread more of his tax increases to upper earners, but Malloy has been holding firm, saying he will insist on a tax structure that allows him to compete with surrounding states for jobs.

The tax rate may not be subject to collective bargaining, but it clearly is a major part of the unions’ public campaign.

“The administration’s discussions with the state union coalition aren’t simply about finding concessions and savings, it’s really about how this administration is going to approach rebuilding the middle class and creating jobs,” Dorman said. “We share that broad goal. We want to see Connecticut’s economy moving in a forward direction. And we want to see middle-class workers everywhere respected.”

Malloy said he shares that goal of respecting workers.

On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” last week, he chided a panel of analysts for “demonizing” unions. Within hours, his received dozens of emails from across the country, thanking him.

“You stood up for the unions, and the responsibility of leaders to HONOR their CONTRACTS that have been made with unions. You infatically (sic) stated that UNIONS should NOT be demonized. I am SO PROUD of what you said and what you stand for,” a Connecticut correction officer wrote.

On CNN over the weekend, he defended his budget as a measured approach that shares the pain among state employees and taxpayers. His rhetoric is outwardly respectful to unions, yet it comes with the possibility of layoffs. He needs $1.8 billion in total spending cuts to go with a $1.5 billion tax increase. Right now, his budget assumes that $1 billion of those cuts will come in labor savings.

“I’ve made it very clear that in the absence of these concessions we are talking about laying off thousands and thousands and thousands of people and destroying our safety net,” Malloy said Sunday on CNN. “So either everyone is going to come to the table and we’re going to be successful down this particular road, or we’ll have to take a different road.”

In an interview with The Mirror, Malloy was asked if he still could end up being seen as a union buster, albeit a polite one, given the extent of his demands?

“These are extraordinary times, and I think that everyone has to look at what we are doing as a preservation of a future,” Malloy said.

But can Malloy convince labor to embrace significant pain now on the promise it will bring stability?

Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney, R-Fairfield, said Malloy’s demands are not dissimilar from those sought by Gov Chris Christie of New Jersey, who has been more confrontational, prompting Malloy to brand himself the “Anti-Christie.”

But McKinney said both governors say they are trying to reform a compensation system they see as unsustainable.

“That’s not anti-union,” McKinney said.

Olsen said he appreciates that the governor is facing a series of difficult choices about taxes and cuts, but he said that many in labor have not accepted that the governor’s insistence that the current fiscal crisis is structural, as opposed to a temporary economic downturn.

“I do believe we’re not in a permanent hole here. I do believe we’re going to come out of this hole,” Olsen said. Of the governor’s call for pain now and stability later, Olsen sounded dubious: “It’s like asking me to hold my breath for a year.”