Controversial unionization bills fail to clear committee

Republicans ran out the clock on two controversial proposals to extend collective bargaining rights to daycare and home care workers Tuesday, preventing either from getting a vote by the legislature's Labor and Public Employees Committee before its deadline for acting on bills.

But those on both sides expect the proposals, which grew out of executive orders issued by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, to resurface before the session ends.

"It's not dead yet," said Rep. Zeke Zalaski, the Southington Democrat who co-chairs the labor committee.

His co-chair, Sen. Edith G. Prague, D-Columbia, said the proposals would be revived as amendments to other legislation on the Senate and House floor. "We're not going to let them die," she said.

After the committee meeting, opponents of the proposals thanked Rep. Craig Miner, a Republican from Litchfield, who was asking questions on one of the bills when time ran out. Miner cautioned them that the proposals could come back.

"This is a complicated process," he said. "This is not a small piece of legislation introduced by some obscure legislator."

Malloy issued the executive orders in September, after unsuccessful efforts in the legislature to give collective bargaining rights to child care and home care workers paid through state-administered programs. Malloy's orders allowed both groups to form unions that could represent them in nonbinding discussions with the state, but did not give them collective bargaining rights. The orders also created working groups to examine how to structure collective bargaining rights.

Those groups' recommendations led to this session's bills, which would give collective bargaining rights to personal care attendants who serve people in state-funded home care programs and child care workers who provide care funded through the state's Care 4 Kids program.

The child care workers have already voted to unionize, electing CSEA/SEIU Local 2001 to represent them, while personal care attendants are currently voting on whether to join the New England Health Care Employees Union District 1199, SEIU.

Supporters of unionization have argued that workers in both fields tend to receive low wages and no benefits, leading to turnover and instability in the workforce. In issuing the executive orders, Malloy describe the child care workers and personal care attendants as "oftentimes the hardest working and lowest-paid workers in our job force." Supporters, who include personal care attendants, people who receive services and child care workers, have said that giving workers a collective voice could help in lobbying for more funding for the programs that pay them.

But the proposals have drawn opposition from critics who say Malloy overstepped his authority in issuing the orders, as well as personal care attendants, child care workers and people with disabilities who worry that unionization would interfere with the nature of the state's home care programs, which emphasize control by the person receiving services. Critics of unionization have also said that increasing wages could lead to a reduction in services if overall funding for the programs doesn't increase.

The bills would have prohibited the unions from bargaining over issues including access to state employee benefits; the right of a consumer or consumer's family to hire, supervise or fire any provider; or grievance procedures against any consumer. Both bills also prohibited any contract provision from leading to a reduction in services; in the case of home care, some of which is funded through Medicaid, the bill also prohibits any contract provision from reducing Medicaid funds to the state.

Catherine Ludlum, who hires personal care attendants and has been one of the most vocal opponents of unionization, said after Tuesday's meeting that she was "cautiously optimistic."

"It's too early to have a party yet," she said, noting that the proposals could pop up again.

On that she was in agreement with Benjamin Phillips, a CSEA spokesman.

"It's a marathon," he said of the legislative process. "The bills may be gone for now, but the concept is not."

"It's just another little hurdle we've got to jump over," said 1199 spokeswoman Deborah Chernoff.

She noted that critics of Malloy's executive orders had talked about wanting to let the legislative process work, but that when the committee was poised to vote for the bill, they decided to interfere.

The labor committee's meeting Tuesday got started about a half-hour late at the request of Republicans, according to Prague. The committee had until 5 p.m. to vote on bills, and took up the bill about collective bargaining rights for daycare providers at 3:40. Republicans asked a wide range of questions about it, including about the procedures for electing a union, what would happen if child care providers left the state program, other states' experiences and how the state would fund any increases in pay negotiated by a union. Time ran out before a vote on the bill, or before any discussion could take place on the personal care attendant bill.

Senate Minority Leader John McKinney of Fairfield issued a statement praising the outcome.

"I applaud the Republican members of the Labor Committee for defeating these two bills," he said. "The Democrat effort to force unionization on workers who don't want to unionize has been bad public policy from the start. Today's courageous effort by the Republican members of the Labor Committee will allow us to continue to fight in the courts and the legislature on behalf of day care workers, personal care attendants and those who depend on them."

Waterbury-based We, the People of Connecticut, Inc., filed a lawsuit challenging Malloy's executive orders earlier this month, and the Yankee Institute for Public Policy is expected to file one, too, with a news conference on the challenge scheduled for Thursday morning.

Miner said he understood that people felt they deserve better compensation and benefits, and that many workers receive minimal pay, although he noted that the same could be said for workers in many fields. He said he'd heard from many people with concerns about the process behind the proposals, starting with the executive orders.

And Miner questioned whether the state would have the money to put toward higher pay if the collective bargaining process created by the legislation produced contracts calling for raises.

As for the future of the proposals?

"Oh, this will come back," he said.