Lamont to labor: ‘We’re going to be fighting for you’

mark pazniokas / ctmirror.org

Ned Lamont addresses a union rally. From left, Denise Merrill, Susan Bysiewicz, Randi Weingarten, Shawn Wooden and Jody Barr.

New Britain — Gubernatorial candidate Ned Lamont, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy and the rest of the statewide Democratic ticket vowed loyalty to organized labor Friday, promising to fight in Hartford and Washington to protect collective bargaining and the right to organize at a pivotal time for public-sector unions in the U.S.

“We’re going to be fighting for you for the next four years,” Lamont said, standing on a flatbed trailer outside AFSCME Council 4, which represents 30,000 public employees, half of whom are employed by the state. “That I promise you —fighting for you for the next four years. That’s what we need to do.”

Lamont promised to defend labor laws that have kept public-sector unions strong in Connecticut, but made no mention of what is likely to come no matter who is elected governor Tuesday — an attempt to coax concessions from employees to help shrink a projected $2 billion budget shortfall, even though they are protected from layoffs for two years.

Murphy and Lamont have been doing joint mailings linking Stefanowski to President Donald J. Trump, saying GOP tax policies and opposition to the Affordable Care Act hurt the middle class.

“We’re going to be a team, ultimately,” Murphy said in an interview. “If we are going to protect Connecticut against the worst of Trump’s agenda, you can’t have a senator and a governor who are working at cross purposes.”

The get-out-the-vote rally Friday was organized by AFSCME and AFT-Connecticut, two of the unions that helped elect Dannel P. Malloy as the first Democratic governor in 20 years in 2010, only to have him demand wage freezes, retirement-benefit givebacks and other concessions to close an even larger deficit of $3.7 billion.

Randi Weingarten, the national AFT president, told union members they would have been better off had Lamont not lost the the gubernatorial primary to Malloy in 2010. She worked for Malloy’s re-election in 2014, but felt betrayed by his cuts to education spending in 2016 during another budget crisis.

Local union leaders said they understood Lamont may invite them back to the table next for difficult negotiations, but they believe him committed to collective bargaining and organizing laws, while Republican Bob Stefanowski is a supporter of right-to-work legislation that curbs unions’ influence in other states.

Unions have shared with members how Stefanowski celebrated a major blow to unions, a U.S. Supreme Court decision in June in the case of Janus. v. AFSCME, Council 31 that stripped unions of their ability to charge non-union government employees “agency fees” if their wages and benefits are set by union contracts.

The immediate loss to state employee unions in Connecticut was $3.4 million in agency fees from 5,490 state employees who are not union members but benefitted from union-negotiated wages and benefits. A bigger question was whether other employees would quit their unions, knowing they could stop paying dues without being charged agency fees.

“Thank God for the Janus decision. First of all, to force employees to join a union is just un-American. I just don’t know how it happened,” Stefanowski told the Southington Republican Town Committee before the GOP primary. A video of his remarks is on YouTube.

Actually, public employees cannot be forced to join a union. Under the terms of a 41-year-old precedent in another labor case, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, government workers already can opt out of unions and decline to contribute to union political funds, but they still could be assessed for a share of the costs incurred during collective bargaining.

But Stefanowski said Janus would tip the balance of power away from unions, potentially giving the next governor leverage to renegotiate a contract with SEBAC, the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition, that dictates pension and retiree health benefits through 2027.

“The nice thing about it is it gives us a lot more power with the union leadership to scrap the SEBAC agreement,” Stefanowski said in Southington. “It takes them out right at the knees. When I saw that decision come through I was clicking my heels three times.”

Stefanowski has promised retired teachers, whose pensions he sees as modest, that he would not try to cut their benefits. But he says the pension system, which is badly underfunded, is not sustainable and must shed costs. Annual pension and retirement costs are projected to surge dramatically over the next 15 years as Connecticut tries to correct for more than seven decades of inadequate savings for these obligations.

Lamont and the unions take Stefanowski’s comments as a willingness to try to break the retirement obligations with litigation, something that many lawyers see as impossible. “The other guy just wants to tear up contracts, walk away, take us to court and put us into legal hell for the next eight years,” Lamont said. “That’s no way to get it done.”

The Janus decision, so far, has not driven members from public-sector unions in Connecticut. In fact, leaders said Friday, Janus has inspired stronger relationship between members and their unions — and a higher level of political activism.

“They poked the bear,” said Jody Barr, the executive director of Council 4. “We will be stronger from this, and we will do better in this election, because we found activists.”

More than 46,000 unionized state employees paid $1.2 million in union dues in every two-week pay period as of Oct. 12, according to the state comptroller’s office. That would produce $31 million over a full year. Two months before Janus, there were 44,000 dues-paying members.

Elissa McBride, the national secretary-treasurer of AFSCME, said the national experience has been the same,

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