State Labor Commissioner Sharon Palmer and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy FILE PHOTO / CTMIRROR.ORG
State Labor Commissioner Sharon Palmer and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy
State Labor Commissioner Sharon Palmer and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. FILE PHOTO / CTMIRROR.ORG

The administration of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is losing its popular ambassador to organized labor: Sharon Palmer, a former teachers’ union president and AFL-CIO officer, is retiring as labor commissioner at the end of the year.

Palmer, 71, is leaving at a time of tumult and friction with unions over the administration’s decision to close a half-dozen job centers, a cutback revised in the face of a campaign by the state’s largest public-sector union, AFSCME.

Why now?

“Why not? I’m turning 72,” said Palmer, who says her working life began 58 years ago. “I’ve never been laid off, never unemployed since I was 14. It’s time.”

In an interview, she described her decision to retire as driven by age and circumstance, not politics or a consequence of overseeing the Department of Labor at a difficult juncture. She laughed and added, however, “It’s tired me out, that’s for sure.”

The administration announced her decision Friday afternoon with tribute statements from Malloy and Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman.

She was the governor’s second commissioner, and her appointment in 2012 was widely described as one of the governor’s politically astute moves. Her appointment came while the governor was at odds with teachers and still trying to ease hard feelings over the previous year’s concession demands.

In introducing her as his commissioner, Malloy acknowledged the obvious political questions arising from his recruitment of a union leader who so recently had opposed elements of his education reform package, but he deflected them with a one-liner that drew laughter from Palmer:

“Oh, hell, I bang heads with everybody.”

The governor said his relationship with Palmer predated the fight over education reforms, which resulted in the passage of a compromise bill largely applauded by labor and reform advocates.

Her career began in education. Palmer taught science and math in Waterford and was a teacher for the Department of Defense, instructing the children of military personnel in Hanover, Germany.

When Malloy appointed her commissioner, she was a vice president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO and president of the state chapter of American Federation of Teachers. The governor was elected and re-elected with union support, despite conflicts.

One of them was Malloy’s demand to raise standards for tenure, saying it was granted to those who simply showed up.  He apologized for the 2012 remark as he ran for re-election in 2014.

Palmer acknowledged that Malloy’s relationship with her and other union members was complicated.

“At times, sure,” she said. “One of the things in my background is that I’m Irish. My maiden name was Murphy. We spent many an evening arguing politics and issues at the kitchen table. Disagreeing is not something I don’t have fun with at times.”

Malloy, who has more than three years left in his second term, named no successor.

“Under Sharon’s tenure, many successful employment programs and services were developed and launched. I thank her for her unwavering dedication and her service,” Malloy said.

Those programs included initiatives to fight unemployment insurance fraud and the misclassification of employees in the construction trade as contractors, a practice that allows unscrupulous companies to undercut to avoid paying workers’ compensation costs and undercut legitimate competitors.

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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