At State Capitol, a push to expand union rights gains ground

In a difficult year for organized labor, unions in Connecticut have managed to advance legislation that would expand collective bargaining rights to state managers, legislative employees and public-university graduate assistants.

The bill might ultimately fail, but it is one of several bright spots for labor in a year when union bargaining rights are under assault in other states and state employees here are faced with a demand for concessions.

“It’s not any harder, but it’s not any easier, either, ” said Lori J. Pelletier, the secretary-treasurer of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, describing lobbying for labor rights. “It’s still the same arguments. Even in good times, we get questions about costs to the state.”

Over the objections of the University of Connecticut and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s director of labor relations, the legislature’s Labor and Public Employees committee gave bipartisan support this week to a bill expanding collective bargaining to graduate assistants and most managers.

The bill also extends bargaining rights to legislative employees, including the State Capitol police and non-partisan staff. It would bar only high-ranking police officers and an extremely limited number of top managers from joining a union.

And on Thursday, a divided Human Services Committee approved a bill that would extend collective bargaining rights to self-employed personal-care attendants who are paid by state through the Medicaid program.

A similar provision in a bill before the Education Committee would give collective bargaining rights to day-care providers who are reimbursed by the state.

Neither the day-care providers or personal-care attendants would have the right to strike or bring grievances, but they could be represented in negotiations with the state over reimbursement rates.

The Service Employees International Union is pushing both bills, though the union’s political director, Paul Filson, said some legislators are struggling with the concept of giving bargaining rights to workers who are state vendors, not employees.

“The state does not employ this group,” said Sen. Anthony Musto, D-Trumbull, the co-chairman of the Human Services Committee, who voted Thursday against recognizing the personal-care attendants. “It’s a bill that creates a union without a right to strike or grievances.”

His co-chairman, Rep. Peter Tercyak, D-New Britain, voted for the bill. Other Democrats who voted for the measured warned they were unsure about the bill, but they did not want it to die in committee.

The personal-care bill would create a “workforce council,” to which the care attendants would belong. It would provide a central place for Medicaid recipients to seek aides, but the clients would remain free to accept or reject a referred aide, Filson said.

Massachusetts, Michigan, California and Oregon have similar laws.

Filson said the bill would help stabilize a shrinking labor pool of personal care attendants, who now have no health benefits and are poorly paid. But the aides help many disabled Medicaid recipients avoid more expensive institutional care.

The broader collective-bargaining bill approved by the Labor and Public Employees Committee on a 10-1 vote was opposed in public testimony by Linda Yelmini, the Malloy’s administration’s director of labor relations.

The bill would create a new class of state manager, bureau head, which would be exempt from collective bargaining. Depending on the number of employees, no agency could reclassify more than one or two managers as bureau heads.

The result would be that at least 99.5 percent of classified state employees would be eligible to unionize.

“Under this bill, the balance between labor and management would be permanently modified with the taxpayers, clients and other citizen groups being shortchanged,” Yelmini said in testimony submitted to the committee.

“Management and labor would be on the same side of the table,” Yelmini said. “Bureau heads could not be expected to manage entire agencies alone.”

Yelmini noted that the legislation seems to acknowledge the need to exempt a broader group of managers from collective bargaining when it came to the Capitol police. The bill exempts officers at or above the rank of lieutenant.

House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Carfero Jr., R-Norwalk, and Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, said in separate interviews that the legislation is a reminder that collective bargaining remains a broadly supported right in Connecticut, even as the state is pressing for concessions.

Pelletier said the AFL-CIO has sought collective bargaining for a broader range of employees for years. She declined to predict how the measure would be fare.

“Our core belief is people should have the right to collective bargaining, regardless of your job,” Pelletier said.

In one small way, Pelletier said, lobbying legislators about collective bargaining is easier this year. The issue is who does and doesn’t have bargaining rights has been center-stage thanks to labor battles in Wisconsin.

“It’s been a education, it really has,” she said. “It’s like the earthquake in Japan. Now, everyone wants to know how a nuclear reactor works.”