Hundreds of unionized state employees rallied Tuesday morning on the north steps of the Capitol, demanding that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and legislators abandon plans for layoffs and calls for wage and benefit concessions.
The workers, who do various public safety jobs, also insisted that officials levy higher taxes on the wealthy and major corporations to close huge looming deficits in the next two state budgets. Union officials estimated that about 500 workers attended the rally.
“We’re here today to fight back and stand up for what is right and what is fair,” Chuck Della Rocco, president of the union representing judicial and criminal justice security personnel, said. “We’re here to stand up today for the middle class.”
“We work off-shifts and weekends and holidays,” said Collin Provost, president of the state correction officer union. “We are taxpayers too.”
The rally, which featured members of 10 different unions that represent about 10,000 workers, was marked with signs that read: “Tax the rich, not the workers,” “Safety before savings,” and “No special tax increase on state employees.”
Unions granted both wage and benefit concessions in 2009 and 2011, and leaders of several major unions have insisted over the past year that employees won’t grant a third round now.
Democratic and Republican leaders in both the House and Senate have called for concessions. And Malloy’s written request to open talks with the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition, which negotiates benefits for all state employees, was rebuffed earlier this month. Hartford attorney Daniel Livingston, SEBAC’s chief negotiator, said he could not reopen contracts without formal authorization from the member unions.
State legislators were expected to vote Tuesday on a plan to close a relatively modest $220 million hole in the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. That plan relies on a combination of spending cuts and diversions of resources from off-budget accounts and other one-time sources.
But the problem gets much worse very soon.
Surging retirement benefit costs — a problem driven largely by the state’s failure to properly save for decades — and growth from income tax receipts that is falling well short of expectations are the main causes.
The legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis says there is a $900 million deficit, or about 5 percent, in the preliminary budget for the 2016-17 fiscal year. And spending is on pace to exceed revenues by a much larger shortfall, topping $2 billion, in the 2017-18 and 2018-19 fiscal years.
The Democratic governor and legislative leaders from both parties insist there isn’t the political support to raise taxes this spring. Malloy and the legislature’s Democratic majority already ordered tax hikes last June worth more than $1.3 billion over this fiscal year and next combined.
But with major deficits projected despite those increases, workers at the rally said politicians recognize that past tax hikes have fallen too heavily on the middle class, and that wealthy households and corporations can afford to pay more.
“To continue to blame state employees for misguided spending is very ludicrous, Provost said. “We should all be taxed equally.”
The crowd grew angry at times, chanting “respect those who protect.”
During a pause as organizers resolved a mixup in the order of speakers, workers yelled, “We want Malloy; we want Malloy.”
Neither the governor’s office nor most of the legislative leaders commented immediately after the rally.
“The same refrain from state employees is not going to solve the problem, and anyone paying attention knows that,” House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, said. “The governor did not achieve the savings he claimed the state was going to get in his initial budget. Higher taxes have not resulted in the anticipated revenue, only more spending. Our hope is that jobs are not sacrificed because the unions refused to participate.”
Three state legislators spoke at the rally, receiving a mix of applause and boos despite their pledged support for the workers.
“I’m a labor guy,” Rep. Russ Morin, D-Wethersfield said. “My dad was a teamster. My mom’s a retired state employee.”
Morin told workers they aren’t the cause of the state’s fiscal woes. But while he also pledged, “I will have your backs,” he didn’t promise to support or reject specific policies.
Reps. David Alexander and David Kiner, two Enfield Democrats, also emphasized their labor ties. Three state prisons are located in Enfield, and many union workers live in the vicinity.
“I understand the union values. I came from that,” Alexander said, adding that Connecticut’s prisons haven’t faced a major riot in decades, and he is worried what layoffs could do to staffing levels at these facilities. “I don’t want to go back to those days,” he said.