Malloy’s negotiator: Can a friend coax $1 billion from labor?

Mark Ojakian threw back his head and laughed when asked how he became point man for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s efforts to wring $1 billion from state employees. “I don’t know,” Ojakian said. “I kept saying to the governor, ‘I thought you liked me.’ “

Most people do, in fact, seem to like Ojakian, a fixture in state government and politics for 31 years, whether it’s his opposite number in the unions or a Republican legislator who says Malloy has chosen a negotiator without “an ounce of animus.”

“I always say it’s a long life in a small state,” Ojakian said. “You need to remember that in your dealings with people.”

Ojakian is negotiating with old allies from an ever-shifting, never-ending series of campaigns for Democratic friends and progressive issues, including gay marriage and health reform. He says he can promise them only straightforward conversation about what Malloy concedes is “a big ask.”

In the 57-year-old Ojakian, who was deputy comptroller for Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman’s entire 16 years as comptroller, the Malloy administration has given a seemingly impossible task to a career public employee with a reputation for lowering the temperature in heated discussions.

“Mark was obvious in my mind. I just think it was a great fit,” said Benjamin Barnes, the secretary of the Office of Policy and Management, which oversees budget and labor issues. “Mark has a really novel ability to get people to agree and bring them together.”

Barnes, who held top financial and operational posts in Stamford while Malloy was mayor, hired Ojakian as his deputy at OPM, giving him the services of a state government insider experienced in dealing with the legislature and bureaucracy.

Ojakian comes to the post with a deep background in public policy issues in and out of state government – he also was the chairman of the Hartford Housing Authority – but no experience in leading a major labor negotiation.

Ojakian is sitting across the table from a team led by Daniel Livingston, the experienced chief negotiator for the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition. They have known each other for years.

“I don’t know whether it’s harder or easier” to negotiate with old friends, Ojakian said. “I think I approach from a sense of respect for labor and the positive work that the unions have done.”

Respect is nice, but the administration is relying on concession and labor savings to erase nearly one-third of an estimate $3.2 billion deficit.  The $1 billion sought from labor is nearly 20 percent of the $5.4 billion the state now spends on wages and benefits. Apportioned among 46,000 state employees, $1 billion comes to more than $20,000 each.

“I don’t live in a dream world where I think we’re all going to sit around the table at the end without having some very difficult conversations that might not be as civil as they are right now,” Ojakian said. “I don’t have any illusions where the process may go.”

Observing the ground rules of the administration’s talks with labor, Ojakian is sharing little about the demands, other than saying not all the savings would come from wages and benefits. But he assures two things: the administration has a list of specific savings, and they do add up to $1 billion.

“There seems to be a sense that number was just thrown in there to fill a hole,” Ojakian said. “And actually it was not. There is a way to achieve a billion dollars. So, I don’t want anybody to think that’s a false number or that number cannot be achieved through a variety of savings, ideas and concessions. It can be.”

Technically, the talks are not collective bargaining. The unions have not taken the formal step of reopening any contracts, including 20-year deal on health and pension benefits reached with the administration of Gov. John G. Rowland in 1997.

If they had reopened a contract and begun formal collective bargaining, an impasse would automatically lead to binding arbitration. With these talks, failure would lead, in Malloy’s words, to “unimaginable consequences” of massive layoffs and cutbacks in state services.

The political context for these talks is far different than the unions’ white-hot battles with Rowland. In 2003, the unions filed a federal civil rights lawsuit accusing the Republican governor of ordering 3,000 layoffs in 2003 to punish defiant workers, not close a $650 million deficit.

In Malloy, the unions are dealing with the administration of a Democrat they helped elect by just half a percentage point last fall, giving Connecticut its first Democratic governor in 20 years. They realize a failure to resolve the concession talks would badly wound the new administration.

But many at the Capitol are openly skeptical that the talks can produce $1 billion in savings in each of the next two years.

While Ojakian comes to the task with no major experience in labor talks, he is leading a team that includes Linda Yelmini, the state’s director of labor relations.

His entrée to Malloy is Wyman. His friend and old boss laughs at the idea that her former deputy, who has interacted with legislators for three decades, is new to the art of negotiation.

“You’re always negotiating, wherever you go,” said Wyman, a former legislator. “You’re always negotiating. Everything you talk about here is negotiation in one way or another.”

Wyman met Ojakian in the early 1980s she was a legislative aide and he was a researcher and analyst with the non-partisan Office of Legislative Research.

“He’s a down to earth person, and he’s come up through the ranks,” Wyman said.

Ojakian, who grew up in West Hartford, graduated from Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., then earned a graduate degree in international relations at American University in Washington D.C. He was working as a waiter at Carbone’s Restaurant in February 1980 when he was hired by the Office of Legislative Research.

To begin his career as a public employee, Ojakian took a pay cut. He continued to moonlight on weeks at Carbone’s for six months.

By the time Wyman was a state representative serving as co-chairwoman of the Education Committee, Ojakian was managing government affairs for the state Board of Higher Education.

In 1994, when Wyman decided to run for the statewide office of comptroller, Ojakian was struggling with the death of his partner in a car accident. She suggested he volunteer as a distraction.

“One day turned into two days turned into three days, then turned into every day,” Ojakian said. “It quickly became her and I on the road together.”

To celebrate her victory and to thank Ojakian for his help, Wyman offered to take Ojakian to dinner on the eve of her swearing in. He chose Carbone’s, the restaurant where he had waited on dozens of political figures.

Wyman said Ojakian was her obvious choice as deputy. When she became Malloy’s running mate, Ojakian joined the campaign as well. He became Barnes’ deputy with Malloy’s support.

And now Ojakian is handling one of the administration’s toughest jobs

“The trust I felt in Mark, I think the governor felt the same,” Wyman said. “He has the ability to talk, understanding this is not an all out war, that we have a problem to deal with, and how do we find the best solution for it.”

He has maybe a month or two to get to yes. Malloy is pushing to resolve the budget in May, and the legislature has no intention of approving a spending plan with $1 billion in to-be-named labor savings.

“I’m hopeful we re going to be able to work through this without a lot of rancor, I guess,” Ojakian said. “Is that optimistic? Maybe.”