Labor peace fleeting as troopers, prison guards rally against Malloy

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy had his moment of solidarity with state employee unions last week as a two-year concessions package won approval by a wide margin, but that unity began to erode Monday as unions representing state police and prison guards staged separate protests.

Troopers insisted Monday that their “unique” status as public safety employees should spare them from the threatened layoffs of 56 new troopers, a possibility after their union declined to accept a two-year wage freeze that would have come with a four-year guarantee of job security.

At a press conference later in the day, Malloy seemed disinclined toward shedding the new troopers, noting that the state already had invested in their training at the academy and their seasoning in the field.

“I’m looking at all of my options, quite frankly,” Malloy said. “We have about a $4 million investment in these folks as far as training and time on the job. I’m aware of that. Suffice is to say, I take all things into consideration.”

More than 300 troopers, retired troopers and their family members rallied on the Capitol’s north steps, arguing that they face extreme demands on time and personal safety that no other state employees can match.

Union leaders also noted that while they overwhelmingly rejected wage concessions, they did endorse health care, pension and other benefit givebacks in the latest round of concession voting with 58 percent casting ballots in support.  And they also agreed to an effective one-year wage freeze in the May 2009 concession deal ratified under then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell.

“Are troopers unique?” Sgt. Andrew Matthews, president of Connecticut State Police Union asked members seven times during the hour-long, late morning rally, receiving a resounding chant of approval each time.

The union was one of two bargaining units within the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition that rejected the two-year wage freeze, which prevents them from receiving the four-year guarantee against layoffs in the deal. Malloy had issued more than 3,000 layoff notices earlier this summer, including 56 to state police, but said nearly all pink slips issued to unionized employees would be recalled if full concessions were granted.

“We’re not better than anyone, we’re different,” Matthews said. “We make life-and-death decisions in seconds.”

Troopers’ lives may be threatened by gunfire, reckless motor vehicle traffic and hazardous biological and chemical materials, he said, adding that their oath requires them to respond to public safety threats 24 hours per day, regardless of whether they are on the clock.

“Our lives are shortened by the stress and experience of our professions,” he said as troopers held aloft signs that read: State Police Union 24/7, SEBAC, 8 Hours/Day,” and “Protection of Property and Life: Priceless.”

The union rally featured an appearance by the widows of two troopers killed in the line of duty: Sheila Hall, whose husband Kenneth was killed by a motorist on Interstate 91 last year; and Carol Bagshaw, whose husband Russell was gunned down while investigating a burglary in Windham in 1991.

“You go home at night at you expect them to be there and they’re not there,” Hall said, adding no state benefit can replace the loss of her husband.

Retired Trooper James Reidy, whose 14-year state police career ended when he was shot in the line of duty in Willington in 1998, became choked with emotion. “I never came back to work and my life has never been the same.”

Trooper Michael Buck, 26 of Glastonbury, a member of the 2010 class of 56 troopers that received pink slips., said that while he voted both for the wage freeze and the benefit givebacks, “I do not blame troopers who gave back their raises in 2009 and don’t want to do so again.”

While troopers argued that these types of hazards grant them unique-but-not-elite status among the ranks of state employees, the Malloy administration insisted it would not waiver in its mission to balance a state budget that once faced a deficit approaching $3.7 billion, or nearly 20 percent of the prior year’s spending.

“To be clear, I deeply appreciate the troopers’ service, as I do the service of all state employees,” Malloy wrote in a statement issued after the rally. “The troopers put their lives on the line every day, and we are a safer state thanks to their service.”

“But I have to manage the entire workforce, and given the massive budget problems I inherited, I believe asking all state employees to take a two-year wage freeze – in return for job security – is fair,” the governor wrote. “By rejecting that two-year wage freeze the state police have rejected the job security; therefore, they’re subject to layoffs.”

Malloy added that “Despite the unprecedented fiscal challenges facing the state of Connecticut, I refuse to compromise public safety.”

But police union officials argued that public safety already is being compromised, and layoffs only can make things worse.

Connecticut currently employs 1,127 troopers, 121 below the statutorily mandated level. And that’s before the notice period expires on Wednesday for the 56 troopers who received pink slips.

In a campaign position paper, Malloy noted last fall that state police trooper ranks were below the mandated mark, adding that “we must …ensure that Connecticut meets and exceeds statutorily required State Police staffing levels.”

“You cannot do more with less when it comes to law enforcement,” Dennis Hallion, executive director of the National Troopers Coalition, said, accusing Malloy of placing a price on public safety — that being the 2.5 percent raises due troopers this fiscal year. “To decimate the rank and file of the Connecticut State Police is unacceptable.”

Had police forfeited raises this fiscal year and next, they would have been eligible under the concession deal for 3 percent raises in each of the following three fiscal years.

And after this year’s raise, any future increases likely would be referred to a state arbitration panel. Given the sluggish economy, how likely are troopers to receive a cumulative raise over this year and the following four that would top the 9 percent effective hike through 2015-16 spelled out in the concession deal?

Matthews said it isn’t possible to predict, but he did note that while the concession deal provides for three years of raises after the wage freeze ends, the protection against layoffs only extends two years after the freeze period.

“That last 3 (percent raise) in the fifth year of the deal really isn’t guaranteed” since some troopers could be subject to layoffs, he said. But that concern is far-fetched, given recent history in Connecticut.

Malloy has noted that, unlike Rell did in 2009, he proposed and signed into law an unprecedented state tax increase, more than $1.5 billion, to reduce the likelihood that more concessions or layoffs would be needed in the near future.

Matthews added that the troopers’ union also intends to work with the legislature next year in hopes to being removed from the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition and being allowed to negotiate its benefits independent from other state employee units.

Also Monday, unionized Department of Correction officers rallied outside of the Hartford Correctional Center to raise concerns about prison closures and safe staffing levels.

Corrections Officer Luke Leone doesn’t understand why even after the concessions package was ratified Bergin Correctional Institution in Mansfield will still close.

“We voted for it and now they’re still not going to reopen it,” Leone said.

So disturbed by the closure of the 960-bed jail while 5 percent of the state’s inmates sleep in gymnasiums, closets, employees offices and other non-conventional facilities, his union has asked a judge to intervene.

A hearing date is set for Sept. 9 in Hartford Superior Court to stop the scheduled closing of the Bergin facility.

“It’s unsafe for officers,” he said. “We have the prisons. We have the bed space. … I say this is a recipe for disaster.”