Lori Pelletier: ‘Either you respect collective bargaining or you don’t’

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Lori J. Pelletier, president of the AFL-CIO

Lori J. Pelletier, the president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, raised eyebrows by organizing a picket line outside the state Democratic Party’s annual fundraiser last year to protest a Democratic governor and legislature for opting to lay off unionized state workers instead of raising taxes on the rich.

The party leadership wasn’t troubled when Pelletier subsequently failed to win a spot as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention, once an unthinkable snub for the head of the AFL-CIO. But these are complicated times for labor, especially for unions representing state workers. They just ratified a concessions deal with a governor they helped elect, Democrat Dannel P. Malloy.

Pelletier, whose path to leadership of the state’s labor federation began as a union machinist at Pratt & Whitney, talked about the labor landscape in our Sunday Conversation.

As the head of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, you’re the voice and the face of labor. What does that mean to you?

Well, I think my responsibility is making sure that every day workers have a voice. They don’t have the money to hire a big public relations firm or lobbying firm. So that’s our responsibility — to make sure that their needs, the problems they have, can come to a resolution.

As the number of unionized workers in the private sector has shrunk over the years, the issues of public-sector unions seems to dominate. How do you balance that?

It’s no different than 20 years ago, when the attacks were on workers at Pratt, saying, ‘They made too much. Their pensions are too high. Their benefits were too good.’ You know, it was the public sector workers that stood up and supported the private sector. Now they’re the new target. Everybody gets their chance in that barrel, and it’s up to the rest of the movement who doesn’t happen to be in the barrel at the time to stand up for the ones that are.

The state employee concession deal was barely ratified by the General Assembly, even though it was worth $1.57 billion to the state over two years. To nearly half the legislature, it wasn’t enough. What does that say about the status of public employees and public employee unions in Connecticut right now?

The members of the General Assembly look at that as a political issue. The Republican Party has an idea. They seem to have a game plan that being the party of no, being the doom and gloom party is what’s going to win them potentially their holy grail of the governor’s office. And so the idea that they said no to a billion and a half in concessions from workers is more about that than it is about the workers or the public employees themselves.

In 2013 Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was the keynote speaker at the Connecticut Republican Party’s annual fundraiser, the Bush dinner. I asked every candidate or likely candidate if Walker’s successful campaign to break the power of public-sector unions was a model for Connecticut, and they all kept their distance from Walker, saying his approach was a bit much for Connecticut. If Scott Walker was here this year, would candidates be more willing to embrace him? 

During all this discussion about eliminating collective bargaining or going back on promises made, there were a number of members from the Republican caucus that came up and said, ‘Look, we are not supportive of getting rid of collective bargaining.’ …. On the concessions they may have thought some blood was in the water. But again this was about the governor’s race and making public employees the enemy. The enemy is the fact that those making ten thousand dollars a week or more are not paying their fair share.

But unlike 2013 when Governor Walker was here, Republicans are talking about what should be subject to collective bargaining, whether it’s a political strategy or whether it was part of a legitimate budget proposal. The GOP leaders, Rep. Themis Klarides and Sen. Len Fasano, certainly have edged closer to that idea that we need to change this. So looking ahead to 2018, do you anticipate this is going to be a key issue for them?

Well, for us, it’s always been a key issue. I mean either you respect collective bargaining or you don’t. That has been a litmus test for years, whether it’s running for board of ed or governor. I mean, that’s always been our criteria. So they may very well use it. They may try to create this ‘evil state employee that’s greedy.’ But that’s not the reality. And so when you start talking about rank-and-file state employees who are working really hard at providing services for all of us, their neighbors understand that, their friends understand that. And again, if I was writing their campaign for 2018, that is not where I’d go.

The state is an outlier to the degree that Connecticut is one of just four states where pensions and benefits are collectively bargained as opposed to set by statute. Why is this the right way to do this? 

You negotiate with your employer. Senator Fasano and Representative Klarides, I get that they feel the legislature is at the end of the process. So their issue isn’t with state employees. Their issue is with the Office of Policy and Management, which handles labor negotiations. They could have legislated that they have to be included in the initial discussions on these contracts. They could have done that. That wouldn’t have impacted collective bargaining at all. But that’s not what they really want. They just want to get rid of unions.

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Lori Pelletier and Sal Luciano, the AFSCME leader, in 2011.

The labor economist Barry Bluestone, who is friendly to labor, gave an interesting speech in Hartford six years ago that seemed to anticipate the pressures on public-sector unions today.  I’m paraphrasing, but he basically said fight like hell for wages and benefits, but be flexible on work rules. Let your managers be efficient. Keep the public on your side, and don’t be seen as an obstacle. What do you think about that message? 

It doesn’t necessarily just apply to the public sector. Look, you’re not going to fight the employer unless you feel you’re being treated unfairly by the employer. When I worked at Pratt, I didn’t want them to go out of business. I thought we made the best engine in the world, still do. But it doesn’t mean that if I had a manager that was mistreating someone that I wouldn’t go after them, absolutely. Public employees and their managers and the governor and legislature all want services, so they should really think of public sector workers as the partners in how to get that done.

One of the Republican candidates for governor said to me the other day that labor laws here are tilted too much toward labor on work rules. As an example, he questioned why a town should have to negotiate if it wanted to save money by changing pay periods from every week to every other week. Is that a reasonable response?

When the state went to twice-a-month paychecks, we had to negotiate that… I mean that’s something that’s negotiated. Maybe they’re trying to get rid of payroll clerks. I don’t know, but it does need to be negotiated.

What do you think is the image of the state employee right now? Do you ever think you lost, even temporarily, the battle for the hearts and minds of Connecticut taxpayers?

I don’t think so. I think that if people sit down and think, they’ll realize that nowhere else are they getting a billion and a half dollars in concessions. You have legislative leaders on the Republican side talking about how benefits are just too much, it’s just too much. It’s not. We had a janitor retire from state service, worked 32 years at one of the state hospitals cleaning, and he’s retiring after 32 years with $1,500 a month. That’s not breaking the bank.

Unions ratified this concession deal by overwhelming margins, unlike in 2011 when it took two tries to get rank and file to accept. Why do you think that is? What does that mean? 

In 2011, we just had a brand-new governor. It was all sort of hurried. The roll out of it, the explanation of it, the reasons why — they weren’t given a chance to get out there, because it was needed so quickly. Both sides have had since June of last year. So, I think that was it. I think that was a better explanation for workers on you know why we need to do this again.

Doesn’t it also reflect a sense of the risk if it was rejected? Democrats at the Capitol have said that Fasano and Klarides’ approach, not eliminating collective bargaining but certainly restricting it, would have gotten a good reception had labor said, ‘No, we’re not going to help you.’ 

Certainly their comments raised a lot of eyebrows.

I guess what I’m asking you, is there a sense among those in labor — tactical retreat may be too strong a term — that this is a time for greater sensitivity about the level of public sector benefits?

I think there’s a sensitivity to the fact that the state was in, is in, fiscal — I don’t want to say fiscal crisis, but has fiscal issues. State employees, as would employees in any private sector industry, they stepped up.

Why don’t you want to call it a fiscal crisis?

I don’t think that it’s a fiscal crisis. I mean we’re not Illinois. We’re not three years down the road without a budget. There are some answers. People just have to get there.

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Gov. Dannel P. Malloy addressing a union breakfast during his 2014 campaign. Lori Pelletier watches.

You haven’t been crazy about the governor or the legislature focusing on spending cuts over progressive tax increases favored by labor. So in 2018, what’s a good union activists to do? 

It depends on who the candidates are, obviously. But we decided a few years ago that it’s less about party and more about issues, about records. We’ll provide the information to union members. How they respond, how they vote is always up to them. But it needs to be an economic message, whoever is running.

You say it’s not about party, but the common ground for labor and Republicans has all but disappeared. Senator Fasano was once cross-endorsed by the Working Families Party for how he voted for paid sick days. But we haven’t seen that in a while. So what does that portend for the state of politics in Connecticut as it applies to where labor makes its alliances? 

For the AFL CIO it takes a two-thirds vote to get an endorsement. Conversely, it only takes a third to block an endorsement. Some candidates on the state and even local level are able to get individual unions to back them because of a particular issue. But we represent the whole movement. And so we don’t want someone that is just good for group A; we want someone that’s good for all of us. And so there may be a chance where there’s no one endorsed. But I’m looking for, on behalf of this organization, someone who respects collective bargaining, that has shown that they can be a leader and not just be capitulating to whoever was the last person in their office. And you know moving forward what their plan is for Connecticut.

Twenty-eighteen is going to be a pivotal year in a lot of ways. It’s going to be an open race for governor. We have a legislature divided nearly 50-50 between the major parties. What would it do to the labor movement if the AFL-CIO could not unite behind somebody to the point where two thirds of the members are not willing to give an endorsement for governor?

I think that it wouldn’t be good at all. Our voice not at the table leaves a big void. I don’t know that that’s ever happened. I hope it doesn’t start.

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