AFT-Connecticut, one of the state’s two major public employee unions that represent teachers, has formally endorsed the re-election of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a first-term Democrat whose relationship with teachers has been rocky.

AFT’s endorsement of Malloy and the other five statewide constitutional officers, all Democrats, would barely be noteworthy in other years, but the governor’s relationship with labor in general and teachers in particular has been eventful.

Malloy, 58, the first Democratic governor in a generation, began his term in 2011 by seeking a pay freeze and other concessions from public employees, setting a difficult tone for his relations with union rank and file.

Labor leaders recommended the concession deal, but it took two votes to win ratification. The governor’s call for education reform a year later outraged teachers, especially his insistence that tenure is won by merely showing up.

“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.”

He eventually compromised on the reform bill, but the line has haunted him. It also has contributed to a third-party run for governor by Jonathan Pelto, a former Democratic legislator.

Leaders of AFT-Connecticut and other public-employee unions have said that Malloy deserved labor’s support for respecting collective bargaining rights for public employees at a time when they are under attack in other states.

Malloy reinforced that message Friday as the publicly thanked the AFT.

“I firmly believe that teachers, health care professionals, and all workers should have the right to collectively bargain — for good wages and benefits, due process and a voice at work,” he said in a statement issued by his campaign. “From the picket lines to the Capitol, we’ve stood together to protect workers’ rights and that won’t change. We won’t let Connecticut go down the dangerous path that GOP governors are leading states like Wisconsin down.”

John P. McKinney, one of three candidates seeking the Republican nomination for governor, said he was “stunned” that AFT would endorse Malloy in light of his comments on teacher tenure.

“This decision was clearly made by a small executive committee of union leaders, not rank-and-file teachers,” McKinney said. “This endorsement doesn’t take away their civic right to vote the way they want to at the polls.”

Malloy is set to win the endorsement next week of the Connecticut AFL-CIO. He and the convention-endorsed Republican candidate, Tom Foley, are scheduled to address the labor federation Monday in New Haven.

The AFT-Connecticut’s executive committee formally approved the endorsement Thursday night. It was announced Friday.

“Our executive committee has spoken,” said Melodie Peters, the AFT-Connecticut president. “Last night’s vote is the final step in our democratic process for considering candidates for statewide office. It follows a long-established policy of providing a voice for our diverse, large membership through their local unions.”

Those local members include health care workers whom Malloy defended during their lockout at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital. While other union members have embraced Malloy, many teachers remain reticent.

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 told The Mirror months ago. “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.”

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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