Lawmakers send labor a stern warning with bargaining rights bill

State legislators gave unionized employees an early taste Thursday of what labor negotiations could be like at the Capitol if major wage and benefit concessions aren’t granted to help balance the new budget.

After the Senate voted 30 to 6 to adopt a measure curtailing collective bargaining rights tied to pensions and longevity pay, the House of Representatives effectively tabled the matter, but only after its leaders warned it could be considered later this summer.

And while lawmakers made it clear their hope is that unions will use the grace period to reconsider a concession package voted down earlier this month – or adopt something similar – a union spokesman said Thursday that the message was received.

“We want them to come to agreement,” House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden, said. “I would think that the state employees would take notice that the bill is alive and on our calendar.”

The notice came in the form of a bill that would implement several proposals Gov. Dannel P. Malloy offered earlier this week including:

  • Freezing longevity payments – periodic bonuses for senior state employees – for non-union workers and eliminating those for non-union workers not yet eligible for them.
  • Banning longevity pay from future contracts with state employee unions.
  • Excluding earnings from overtime or longevity pay from pension calculations.

Legislative analysts estimated the changes could save $9 million in total over the next two fiscal years.

“It’s not a punishment, it’s a reaction to public outcry,” said Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, referring to a failed concession package that officials were counting on to save $700 million in the fiscal year that begins Friday, and $900 million in 2012-13.

“Nobody expected them to vote down that package,” said Sen. Edith G. Prague, D-Columbia, co-chairwoman of the Labor and Public Employees Committee and a longtime advocate of state employees. “This is not New Jersey. This is not Wisconsin. That was a good package.”

Prague, who introduced the package of collective bargaining changes on the Senate floor, said that while she believes good wages, health benefits and pensions should be provided to state employees, “I don’t believe we should be paying people … just because they have worked for 10 years.”

The concession agreement would have ordered a two-year wage freeze, new restrictions on health care and pension benefits, an employee wellness program and various management-labor cost-saving committees. It was approved by 57 percent of the workers who cast ballots, but it failed under a rule requiring that majorities in unions representing 80 percent of all affected workers vote yes.

The State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition announced last Friday that it would not formally report the rejection vote to the administration but rather would survey its members and review its bylaws in hopes of finding a way to reconsider the deal.

“I don’t know what the path forward is going to be, but there’s going to be a path forward,” SEBAC spokesman Matt O’Connor said.

Meanwhile, Malloy announced plans earlier this week for nearly 5,500 layoffs and elimination of 1,000 vacant jobs. And the administration cut a deal with lawmakers Thursday that could add another 1,000 layoffs in exchange for no reductions in municipal aid as they work to re-balance the state budgets for the next two fiscal years.

“We don’t want to see layoffs. We don’t want to see contracting out. We don’t want to see working rights stripped,” added O’Connor, who stopped short of saying the Senate bill would motivate union members to reconsider concessions. “There’s no question that members have reacted to these proposals.”

“It is critical that we have our fiscal house in order,” Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn. “It is critical that we address financial problems facing the state of Connecticut… We know we can’t continue on the course that has been set for many years.”

Eighteen of the Senate’s 22 Democrats joined with 12 of 14 Republicans to approve the bill.

Sen. John Fonfara of Hartford, who cast one of the opposition votes, said that the overtime change could weaken pensions for some lower paid state employees, such as truck drivers, who don’t earn high salaries.

“It’s not that I’m insensitive to the costs involved here, I am,” Fonfara said, adding that he understands that the longevity system has been abused, particularly through bonus payments to senior administrators receiving six-figure salaries. “But I’d rather not take a hammer (approach) where everybody’s impacted.”

But Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney, R-Fairfield, said Connecticut is generous to all of its state employees, contributing $10 for pensions for every $1 each worker contributes, a ratio topped by only three other states.

Republicans offered amendments to further constrict collective bargaining proposals, specifically to reduce sick days allowed in future contracts from 15 to 10–a proposal Malloy made earlier this week–and to remove all future pension changes from negotiations. Majority Democrats in the Senate rejected both in votes along party lines.

McKinney called the unfunded liabilities facing the state employee pension system one of the most important fiscal crises facing Connecticut.

The last actuarial report on that pension fund, received last November, showed the fund to be in its worst fiscal shape since the state began saving for pension obligations in the mid-1980s, holding less than 45 percent of the funds needed to meet its obligations.

“The choices are to have dramatic tax increases or to change that benefit structure,” McKinney said.

Voting no were Fonfara and three other Democrats: Edwin Gomes of Bridgeport, Anthony Musto of Trumbull, and Theresa Gerratana of New Britain; also, two Republicans, Leonard Fasano of North Haven and Andrew Roraback of Goshen.