SEBAC lowers concession vote threshold to majority

State employee union leadership voted today to ease the rules for ratifying contract concessions, clearing the way for the unions and the administration of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to reach a new deal to avoid mass layoffs and deep budget cuts.

Simple majorities now will be required for ratification: eight of 15 unions must vote in favor, and their membership must represent a majority of the unionized workforce. Under previous rules, ratification required the support of 14 of 15 unions representing 80 percent of members.

A previous tentative agreement to save $1.6 billion, as calculated by the administration, won support from 11 of the 15 unions, with 57 percent of participating union members voting yes. It fell short of the stricter ratification rules.

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Union spokesmen Matt O’Connor, Leo Canty

“If the same units vote the same way, under the rules it would pass,” Eric Bailey, a spokesman for the unions, said of a new deal.

The new bylaws had to be adopted by a two-thirds vote of the leadership of the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition, but Bailey declined to release the exact vote, calling it an internal matter.

Sgt. Andrew Matthews, president of the Connecticut State Police Union, said he was unable to attend, but his designee was instructed to abstain. But Matthews, whose union voted against the first concession deal, also said, “I think it would be a good thing to allow the membership to vote on another proposal.”

To immediately change the bylaws, the SEBAC leadership first had to vote to suspend rules that otherwise called for a 30-day waiting period.

SEBAC reported the change today on its website, then dispatched two spokesmen, Matt O’Connor and Leo Canty, to the state Capitol to brief reporters.

“The most fundamental principle of democracy is majority rules. There is a recognition of that in the changes that were adopted,” O’Connor said.

Malloy, who was traveling to Connecticut from the annual meeting of the National Governors Association in Utah, issued a statement welcoming the news, but reiterating he is open only to clarifying the previous tentative agreement, not re-negotiating the terms.

“It’s good news that the unions have changed their ratification process to one that respects the will of the majority. Over the next few days Mark Ojakian will be speaking with SEBAC leaders to understand which issues in the agreement need to be clarified,” Malloy said.

Ojakian represented Malloy in the previous negotiations.

“Given the limited number of issues that have been identified as problematic, it shouldn’t take more than a couple of days to have a clarified agreement that’s ready to be voted on by all state employees,” Malloy said.

Technically, the unions and Malloy could reach a new tentative agreement identical to the previous one. More likely, is that they will agree on new language addressing employee concerns about changes to their health-care benefits.

O’Connor and Canty said SEBAC leaders already have an “outline” of suggested changes and are to meet again Tuesday. Canty said speed is essential.

“After July 1, the whole process became a little more complicated, because pay raises were put in place,” Canty said. “We have to figure out how to deal with that particular issue.”

Another potential complication: the layoffs of some employees take effect in two weeks; once laid off, they cannot vote to ratify a new deal.

Legislative leaders express relief at the prospect of seeing layoffs averted.

“I’m glad to see the SEBAC leadership took a responsible action to reflect the will of the majority of employees,” House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan said, adding that “I’m hopeful that an agreement with the governor can be achieved soon.”

Without a new deal, the legislature would have to accept the deep budget cuts Malloy announced Friday or return to Hartford in special session to make their own cuts.

“I literally prayed for days for something like this to happen,” said Sen. Edith G. Prague, D-Columbia, co-chairwoman of the Labor and Public Employees Committee and a longtime labor advocate who chastised SEBAC members for not ratifying the first deal. “Plan B, all of those layoffs, would have been a disaster for everyone.”

Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, and Majority Leader Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, called Monday’s announcement “the news Connecticut has been waiting on for weeks.

“Union leaders should be commended for working together to change their bylaws and helping to facilitate the potential for a successful vote by union members. Approval of the concession package is critical for Connecticut’s fragile economy. We urge union leaders to quickly get clarification on any needed items, call for another vote and for all union members to vote yes. This is Connecticut’s last – and best – chance to resolve its fiscal crisis without undermining its recovery.”

House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, said the SEBAC announcement was “good news,” but it now was essential for Malloy to define what he meant when he said he wouldn’t renegotiate a new deal, but would help the unions to clarify the original package.

“It remains to be seen what ‘clarifying’ means,” said Cafero, who has said he believes the $1.6 billion savings projection from the original deal was inflated considerably.

Cafero specifically questioned a $441 million, two-year savings estimate for a controversial value-based health plan that hopes to promote wellness among state workers, and would penalize those who skip regular physicals and health screenings with a higher premium and deductible.

The GOP leader also doubted the administration’s assertion that, working with employees, it can find $345 million in cost-aving ideas tied to technology, health care, and other government services, over two fiscal years.

The legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis reported back on June 6 that it could vouch for less than 40 percent of the $1.6 billion in labor savings because of unanswered questions or insufficient data.

The second-highest-ranking Republican in the Senate, Leonard A. Fasano, said he also hopes for a fiscally sound concession deal, but remains “very skeptical of the projected savings” from the package rejected in June.

Fasano also said the budget-balancing plan Malloy ordered on Friday, which cut funding for more than 6,500 jobs, “was designed to make people nervous” and could have been devised with fewer position cuts. “I think he used his bully pulpit to be a bully,” Fasano said.

The 11 unions to vote yes:

  • New England Health Care Employees Union, District 1199/SEIU, representing 7,700 nurses, doctors, social workers, technicians and others in a various of agencies and facilities, including the UConn Health Center.
  • AAUP at the University of Connecticut, representing 2,000 faculty and researchers at the main campus in Storrs and regional campuses in West Hartford, Waterbury, Torrington, Stamford and Avery Point.
  • Connecticut Association of Prosecutors, representing 260 state prosecutors.
  • Connecticut Federation of School Administrators, representing 61 principals and others at 18 vocational technical high schools.
  • Connecticut Police and Fire union, representing about 900 public-safety personnel across state government, with the exception of state police officers.
  • AFT Connecticut, representing 6,800 employees in higher education, health care, vocational education and other areas.
  • AAUP in the Connecticut State University system, representing 1,150 faculty, counselors and others.
  • AAUP at the UConn Health Center, representing 550 faculty.
  • Administrative & Residual Union, representing 3,300 state administrative workers.
  • Congress of Community Colleges, representing 2,000 faculty and professional staff.
  • CSEA/SEIU Local 2001, representing 3,900 workers, ranging from bridge inspectors to state police supervisors.

The 4 unions to vote no:

  • Connecticut Employees Union Independent, representing 4,500 maintenance and service employees.
  • AFSCME Council 4, representing 15,600 employees across state government, inlcuding correction officers, social workers, higher-education administrators, and clerical workers.
  • Connecticut State Police Union, representing 1,150 troopers, sergeants and master sergeants.
  • IBPO/SEIU Local 731, representing 750 judicial marshals.