After the deal: Repairing relations between Malloy and labor

With the ratification of a concessions deal, state employee union leaders now face the task of repairing frayed relations with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and many of their own members.

Sal Luciano, the executive director of AFSCME Council 4, the largest state employee union, said Friday labor ratified a deal with Malloy, not reaffirmed a relationship with him.

“I think it would be rocky right now, very rocky,” he said of labor’s relationship with Malloy. “We did work very hard to get this governor elected, and we’re happy we have an agreement, but it’s been a rough road.”

From the moment in February when the new governor demanded $2 billion in concessions and labor savings as part of his proposed biennial budget, labor was thrown into crisis.

Union members were stunned by the scope of the demand by a Democrat they had just helped elect at the urging of union leaders like Luciano.

Labor leaders say they were caught short by the demand, which they came with no advance warning.

“Being put in a corner and being asked for $2 billion was a difficult situation, obviously,” Luciano said.

In his budget address, Malloy issued a relatively nuanced demand for “real savings and concessions,” but employees heard only an unrealistic demand for givebacks.

They quickly calculated that labor savings of $1 billion a year, divided by 45,000 unionized workers, came to $22,000 from each employee.

Of course, the final deal demanded nothing like that. The short term cost to employees will be a two-year wage freeze, followed by a 9 percent raise over three years.

Many workers will have to work longer to earn to their pensions, but some of the biggest savings will come at no direct cost to them. The state says will save hundreds of millions of dollars in health costs through an aggressive wellness program, for example.

“It’s been a long seven months. I wish the communications had been better,” said Patrice Peterson, the president of CSEA/SEIU Local 2001, representing 3,900 workers.

Luciano and Peterson made their comments Friday during a press conference. Also attending was Carmen Boudier, the president of the New England Health Care Employees, and SEBAC’s chief negotiator, Dan Livingston.

Boudier’s union is an affiliate of SEIU, which was credited with huge Democratic turnouts in the cities. She said her members will take time to get over their anger with Malloy.

“Some people are really upset about how this whole thing played out,” she said.

Luciano has his own fences to mend. AFSCME was one of four unions in the 15-union State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition that rejected the original deal in June.

Luciano and Livingston were accused by some angry members of selling them out.

All nine bargaining units within AFSCME voted for the ratification this week.

“As you can see from the second vote, I think there was as lot of solidarity,” Luciano said. “Every single local, not only every bargaining unit, but every local, voted for the SEBAC agreement.”

But, he acknowledged, he and other leaders within AFSCME still have relationships that need repair.

“It’s going to be conversations with individual union members,” he said.

Livingston said the labor agreement, ultimately, was a triumph for collective bargaining in a time when many public sector employees are losing the right to bargain for wages and benefits.

“This is an outcome that stands for the fact that collective bargaining is important, that collective bargaining allows working families to have decent jobs and benefits and preserve them,” Livingston said. “Really, it’s a message not just for state employees around the country, but for all working families.”

The deal includes a call for $180 million in savings over two years that joint labor-management committees are to identify. Livingston said the success or failure of those committees probably will define Malloy’s relationship with his unionized workforce.

“You talk about the relationship between the Malloy Administration and the unions, one of the things that is going to affect that over time is, does the governor really send the kinds of signals to the bureaucracy that he has promised to send?” Livingston said. “Does he tell them, ‘Yes, work with these front line workers. Get the bureaucracy out of the way.’ “

“The proof is in the pudding on that,” he said. “We’ll see over the next six months.”

Malloy declined to comment in detail Thursday on the state of his relationship with labor. His senior adviser, Roy Occhiogrosso, said Friday, “I’m not sure it’s all that bad. I would say the relationship certainly has been tested.”

His hope is that Malloy’s approach to state employee unions, as well as the specifics of the labor agreement, will be judged against labor relations public-sector employees have with management in other states.

“In many states, it’s pretty bad. In many states, it’s going to get worse,” Occhiogrosso said. “Maybe they’ll appreciate they got a pretty good deal.”

The union leadership, at least, is not suffering from buyers’ remorse about their choice of a gubernatorial candidate. His opponent, Republican Tom Foley, had promised to erase a deficit of more than $3 billion without raising taxes.

The union leaders were asked Friday if they could have got a better deal from a Governor Foley.

“Uh, no,” Peterson said, laughing at the question. “Do I need to comment further on that?”