Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and organized labor delivered blunt messages to each other Friday about economic justice, political debts and fiscal realities. Neither side retreated, but Malloy left to applause even after warning of “dire consequences” if concession talks fail.

Malloy Labor

Malloy listens to John Olsen

For 60 minutes, Malloy stood in front of 175 public- and private-sector union members, explaining and defending a budget that unions see demanding too little of the rich and too much of labor. He said mass layoffs remain a possibility if his negotiators do not obtain deep labor savings.

Every attendee walking into the ballroom of the Hilton Hotel was handed a leaflet with the headline, “If Millionaires and Wall Street Don’t Pitch in, Where’s the Shared Sacrifice?”

“Let’s get right to it,” said Malloy, a Democrat demanding $1 billion in labor savings and $1.5 billion in tax increases, much of it on the middle class. “This is as hard for me as it is for some of you.”

Malloy went straight to the subtext of the meeting: What he does he owe labor for crucial support in a race won by just half-a-percentage point? And what do they owe him for being resolute last fall, when his opponent goaded him as being in labor’s pocket?

“I’m probably here because many of you worked on my campaign. And I appreciate it,” Malloy said, his voice soft and measured. “But I will also say to you, in fairness, that during the campaign I stood up for all of you under withering attacks and editorials and columns.”

“The reality is in many ways, I won this election because of you. And in many ways this election was as close as it was because of you,” Malloy said. Pausing a beat, he added, “And I’m proud of that.”

Malloy entered the room to tepid applause. He appeared distracted during his introduction by Glenn Marshall, his labor commissioner. Malloy stood to the side, studying notes as Marshall warmed the crowd with a fail-safe applause line: A comparison of Malloy with other governors in open warfare with labor.

“It’s comforting to know we have a governor in Dan Malloy who believes in unions, who believes in collective bargaining,” Marshall said.

There was nothing tepid about the applause for that line. And as Malloy stepped to the microphone, his audience rose to their feet and applauded, not the worst reaction ever accorded a governor demanding labor concessions.

For the next hour, Malloy and his audience skittered back and forth over awkward terrain. They are adversaries and allies, engaged in a relationship that Malloy, the seventh of seven brothers and the youngest eight children, likened to a large family. Their interests merge and diverge.

“I want to have a good relationship with labor,” Malloy said. “I want to see it grow.”

But Malloy said his job is the state’s economic recovery.

“Now, I didn’t drive Connecticut into the ditch, and let’s acknowledge we are in a ditch,” Malloy said. “And let me acknowledge you didn’t drive Connecticut into a ditch.”

His audience applauded and whistled.

Malloy told them he is one of a handful of governors demanding higher taxes to blunt the need for broader spending cuts that he says would be disastrous for many constituencies. Implicit in the message was the suggestion Malloy believes his boldness on taxes earns him labor support, even if grudging.

But some speakers made clear that labor wants the first Democratic governor in 20 years to give them a measure of payback, sharply higher taxes on the wealthy, the only class that saw real gains during the last economic expansion and the Bush presidency.

“We have waited 20 years for someone to hold them accountable,” said John Olsen, the president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, who spoke to Malloy for three minutes. “We believe that is you.”

Instead, they see a governor intent on bettering the economic climate, cultivating a relationship with businesses like United Technologies Corp., which has slashed union jobs. If they wanted to hear from a class warrior, they were disappointed.

Lori Pelletier, another AFL-CIO officer, chided Malloy for the supportive gestures he is sending to business, at the expense of labor. She noted that the day Malloy appointed Marshall, a trade-union official, he also appointed Dennis Murphy, who used to negotiate contracts for management in Stamford, as a deputy.

“That is a mixed message,” she said.

Pelletier criticized Malloy for cozying up to the president of a UTC subsidiary, Pratt & Whitney, an executive whose compensation topped $20 million. She complained that Malloy’s proposal that every state contract be submitted to a legislative vote was an attack on collective bargaining.

“I will not apologize to anyone for trying to build a new relationship at UTC,” Malloy said, but he insisted that his demand for contract votes was intended to make the legislature accountable, not to subvert collective bargaining. “So I apologize if it was interpreted that way.”

The speakers who followed balanced their criticism with thanks.

“I want to begin by thanking you for standing up the rights of working families in America at one of the most vulnerable times in out history,” said John Yrchik, executive director the Connecticut Education Association.

Then he asked what happens if the concessions do not materialize.

Malloy replied that whenever he truthfully answers that question, he is portrayed as “a bully. But the consequences are dire. They are dire.”

Malloy said mass layoffs and ruinous budget cuts would be the result, with consequences for him and his audience. He would be a failure in his first year as a governor, unlikely to recover.

With Malloy politically wounded, he said, labor could look forward to a Republican successor such as the 2010 nominee, Tom Foley, who promised to erase a $3.5 billion deficit with no increased taxes.

“I’m not going to say anything different in this room than I’ve said outside,” Malloy said. “The consequences are unimaginable for me and for you.”

“Thank you, governor, for being candid,” Yrchik said.

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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