Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s calculated decision to make a public show of challenging unionized teachers two years ago still dogs the first-term Democratic governor as he prepares for a 2014 re-election he cannot win without support from organized labor.

Malloy, who walked a picket line on the summer day he won the Democratic primary in 2010 and forcefully defended workers during a recent lockout at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital, gets stellar reviews for many policies from key union leaders.

They credit him with protecting state jobs during one of the worst economic downturns and say that his willingness to raise taxes preserved aid to cities and towns, saving thousands of jobs held by teachers and other municipal employees.

But the same leaders say that Malloy still has significant work remaining to salve wounds opened by his sharp rhetoric during concession talks in his first year and, even more so, as he framed his call for teacher tenure reform in his second year as an act of political courage.

“I’m a Democrat. I’ve been told that I can’t, or shouldn’t, touch teacher tenure. It’s been said by some that I won’t take on the issue because it will damage my relationship with teachers,” he told the General Assembly in February 2012. Then he made a succinct, sharp case for reform: “In today’s system, basically the only thing you have to do is show up for four years. Do that, and tenure is yours.”

Angry teachers can quote him from memory.

“I wished the governor hadn’t said it. It couldn’t have been more wrong,” said Lori J. Pelletier, the leader of the Connecticut AFL-CIO. “Ultimately, he has to decide how he goes forward.”

Questionable politics

Two efforts by Malloy to demonstrate a degree of independence from public-sector employee unions turned out to be questionable politics, winning him no readily measurable support for his tough talk, while raising the hackles of unionized workers who helped him win Connecticut’s closest gubernatorial race since 1954.

In his first budget address, when Malloy had to erase a $3.5 billion inherited deficit that was the nation’s worst per-capita state budget shortfall, the governor pegged his initial concession demand as worth a stunning $1 billion. State employees quickly did the math: $1 billion divided by 45,000 unionized workers came to an average giveback of $22,000.

The reality was that Malloy intended nothing so draconian: He wanted a two-year wage freeze and some pension concessions, with the bulk of the savings to come from cost savings from a new health plan that actually would save employees money. In return, he offered a four-year guarantee of no layoffs.

“It was a rocky start, I think,” said Salvatore Luciano, executive director of Council 4 of AFSCME, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which has more than 30,000 members divided between state and local governments.

Luciano said he thinks that most AFSCME members now have a better appreciation of Malloy’s willingness to protect the core functions of government and his refusal to scapegoat public employees or limit public employees’ rights to collective bargaining.

“As time has gone on, people have contrasted him with what has gone on in Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan. They’ve seen some of the attacks,” Luciano said.

Construction and other labor unions are grateful that Malloy’s labor commissioner, Sharon Palmer, a former teachers’ union president and AFL-CIO officer, has cracked down on violators of state labor laws. The trades also praise Malloy for his spending on state construction projects, though some would like to see the administration require recipients of state economic aid to abide by prevailing wage laws.

Teachers still irked

His relationship with public-school teachers remains more problematic, as Malloy has expressed regret, though has made no outright apology, for asserting that teachers can get tenure for showing up.

“Some of the rhetoric could have been better and should have been better,” Malloy recently told The Mirror after touring a union training center for apprentice bricklayers. “On the other hand, there are thousands of teachers currently employed in the state of Connecticut because I went in a different direction than other states.”

That is the line Malloy has walked: Expressing regret for his rhetoric, while reminding labor that other governors have slashed public workforces and undermined the ability of public employees to collectively bargain.

“I support labor. With respect to any given group at any given time, you can’t agree on everything,” Malloy told The Mirror. “You have to negotiate hard. You have to bargain hard. But the principle of negotiating and bargaining is mutual respect. Certainly, I’ve done everything in my administration to make sure mutual respect is honored.”

Malloy supported and signed a law that raised the hourly minimum wage by 45 cents to $8.70 Jan. 1. He also lobbied successfully for passage of the nation’s first state law requiring some private employers to provide paid sick days.

“I’ve been a supporter of labor all my life,” Malloy said. “I never hid the fact my mother was a union president, and I believe America has the middle class it has in large part because of the battles that labor fought on behalf of all working men and women, whether they were in labor or not.”

Malloy’s mother was a nurse who organized public health workers in Stamford.

Melodie Peters, the president of AFT-Connecticut, whose 29,000 members include teachers and a diverse collection of other professions, including health care employees, said Malloy supported AFT’s efforts to organize workers at Backus Hospital more than a year ago, as well his efforts to push Lawrence + Memorial to settle recently.

The labor movement is far better off with Malloy, who is the first Democratic governor in two decades, than without him, she said.

“Have mistakes been made along the way? Absolutely,” she said. “I would defy anyone to tell me that I’m perfect. When you have speechwriters, sometimes those things happen, right?”

At the AFL-CIO convention in September, Malloy reminded delegates that he is the youngest of eight, possessed of an aggressive approach to defending his ideas.

“That gives rise to sharp elbows, I know, and sometimes I don’t always use them appropriately,” Malloy said. “But more often than not, I have used them on your behalf. And I am happy to have done that.”

The delegates gave him a standing ovation.

An irony of the governor’s difficult relationship with elements of labor is that union leaders say they believe Malloy shares a genuine affinity for workers and their rights.

Mark Waxenberg, executive director of the Connecticut Education Association, which represents about 40,000 teachers, said he thinks that extends to his profession.

“I know the governor fairly well, well enough to know he has a strong belief in public education and a strong respect for teachers,” Waxenberg said.

But teacher anger at Malloy is real.

“It’s pretty deep,” Waxenberg said. “It’s unfortunate.”

The education reform bill ultimately passed with the support of the teachers’ unions, the Connecticut Education Association and AFT-Connecticut.

“Teachers came to the table and have been partners in that endeavor,” Malloy said. “I’m proud of that fact.”

But the ongoing implementation of a new teacher evaluation system is a fresh source of friction. Waxenberg said the system is laden with red tape and relies on teachers’ uploading student performance data into a computer system that crashes.

“We are trying to work very hard with the administration,” Peters said. “I have every confidence it can be fixed.”

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.

Leave a comment