Gov. Ned Lamont is greeted by the AFL-CIO's president, Sal Luciano, in October. mark Pazniokas /
Gov. Ned Lamont watching his ally, Dave Roche of the Connecticut Building Trades, at the rollout of his transportation plan. mark pazniokas /

The Democrats’ internal struggle over how to finance transportation infrastructure has laid bare tensions between the building trades, a Connecticut labor movement dominated by public-sector unions, and the Democratic lawmakers who see labor unity and support as important to keeping control of the General Assembly in the 2020 elections.

Dave Roche, the president of the Connecticut Building Trades, said construction unions played a role in helping Democrats regain outright control of the state Senate last year, only to grow increasingly angry as Senate Democrats refused to embrace any financing plan that included automobile tolls.

That anger spilled into public view last month after Senate Democrats emerged from a caucus at the State Capitol to effectively kill the governor’s latest transportation financing plan just days after it was released before an appreciative audience of construction workers. Roche found himself shouting complaints at an old friend, Sen. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown.

“Matt’s a really good friend of mine,” Roche said. “I was frustrated.”

“I officiated his daughter’s wedding,” Lesser said. “We go back a ways. I’ve had a long relationship with the trades. A lot of them are close friends of mine. I know they’re frustrated, because these are jobs their members are counting on.”

The tensions have eased — but not disappeared — since Gov. Ned Lamont and Democratic legislative leaders united last week behind a trucks-only tolls plan they say would help finance at least $19 billion in transportation infrastructure improvements over the next decade, creating up to 26,000 construction jobs and returning highways and bridges to a state of good repair.

“If you can’t support our issues, we have to look for people who will.”

Dave Roche
President, Connecticut Building Trades

Lamont says he expects the revised CT2030 plan to be ready for consideration by the General Assembly before Christmas. Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, and House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, say scheduling and travel conflicts make a vote more likely in January.

With Republicans opposed to any plan with tolls or other new sources of revenue, success or failure now rests with a first-year Democratic governor and the Democratic majorities of the House and Senate. For reasons of politics and public policy, Democrats say they are intent on finding a resolution.

“I think it’s important that this party end this debate once and for all — and do that in January,” Ritter said.

Labor leaders say a failure by Democrats to pass an infrastructure plan would jeopardize what often is a perfunctory task: re-election endorsements of most Democratic lawmakers by the Connecticut AFL-CIO, the statewide federation of unions. Endorsements require a two-thirds vote.

“If you can’t support our issues, we have to look for people who will,” Roche said.

Opposition by the building trades, whose members are generally seen as among the more conservative in Connecticut labor circles, most likely would be enough to dissuade the federation from making many legislative endorsements in 2020, even if the trades lacked the votes, said Sal Luciano, the president of the AFL-CIO.

“I think the endorsement would be a problem for the simple reason of solidarity,” said Luciano, a former state social worker who spent most of his labor career in AFSCME, a public-sector union. “That’s usually enough to block a two-thirds vote.”

Unions represent 16% of Connecticut workers, but they have been a key element of an enduring coalition that has helped Democrats win the last three gubernatorial elections and control of the state House of Representatives for the past 32 years and the Senate for 28 of those 32 years.

“Too often people clump all of organized labor together as this monolithic thing, and it’s not,” said Rep. Sean Scanlon, D-Guilford. “They are a big tent with different interests, and it’s important for us to remember that.”

The AFL-CIO’s legislative victories in 2019 were the passage of the $15 minimum-wage law, a paid family and medical leave program, and post-traumatic stress benefits for first responders. None of those issues were priorities for the building trades, but Luciano says they backed the broader labor agenda.

“When we do endorse, the building trades punch above their weight.”

Sal Luciano 
President, AFL-CIO

“It’s the sense of solidarity that keeps us together,” Luciano said. “They were good with 15. They were good with paid family leave. They also have a right to expect we’re good with their issues.”

After two years of sharing power with Republicans in an 18-18 Senate, Democrats hold a 22-14 majority in the upper chamber. They were beneficiaries of get-out-the-vote efforts in 2018 by the Operating Engineers and other construction unions known for their willingness to turn out members for weekend door-knocking.

“When we do endorse, the building trades punch above their weight,” Luciano said. 

He said they were especially helpful to Democrats who won what had been Republican seats, such as Norm Needleman of Essex and Mary Daugherty Abrams of Meriden.

Needleman, a businessman who won by just 85 votes in a race in which more than 50,000 votes were cast, said the building trades “were great,” but he declined to attribute his victory to any one factor. “When you win by 85 votes,” Needleman said, “you can point to 86 different things that put you over the top.”

Gov. Ned Lamont is greeted by the AFL-CIO’s president, Sal Luciano, in October. mark Pazniokas /
Gov. Ned Lamont is greeted by the AFL-CIO’s president, Sal Luciano, in October. mark Pazniokas /

Needleman said he has not committed his vote, but he sees trucks-only tolls as preferable to a Republican alternative that would use most of the state’s budget reserves to pay down pension debt, freeing cash for debt service on transportation financing.

Labor’s ire has been directed mostly at the Senate Democrats, whose leader, Looney, sees automobile tolls as politically dangerous. He has had other differences with labor, but few as intense as this.

“I think Marty’s relationship with labor is probably one of the best relationships labor has ever had,” said House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin. “He is a longtime labor supporter. It’s in his family background. On this particular issue, he was careful in thinking about the needs and wants of his caucus and trying to maintain that relationship.”

“You don’t want leaders of caucuses to be wholly owned subsidiaries. Where you disagree, you disagree.”

Speaker of the House Joe Aresimowicz 

Aresimowicz, who has been an AFSCME employee longer than he has been a member of the part-time General Assembly, said periodic disagreements with labor allies is healthy and inevitable. In 2017, both Aresimowicz and Looney angered public-sector unions by agreeing to a bipartisan budget that required legislative votes on contracts and arbitration awards.

“I think it’s actually helpful on both sides. You don’t want leaders of caucuses to be wholly owned subsidiaries,” Aresimowicz said. “Where you disagree, you disagree.”

“It’s all part of the job, I think, dealing with different interests and different priorities,” Looney said. “The bulk of labor, their priority was paid family leave, the minimum wage and, for first responders, the PTSD bill. Those were all major achievements there.”

Looney said his caucus agrees with the building trades, the business community and the Lamont administration that transportation financing is a priority that must be addressed.

“We are working on delivering that.”

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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  1. What more needs be said about the unfair and imbalanced influence, Organized Labor exerts on politics in the State of Connecticut. The comments by leaders of Organized Labor, clearly reveal what they are truly sayng to the political elite, “We own you, and if you do not bend to our will. We will vote you out of office”. There is no greater reason to remove these individuals from office, and to break the stranglehold Organized Labor has on our state and local government.

      1. Labor union members are also voters, just like you and me. If they don’t like a politician, they can vote for someone else, just like you and me. If they think the policies of the government are not in their interest, they can try to change the policies, just like you and me.

        BTW, the same can be said of other interest groups — small businesses, truckers, hospital associations, school teachers, animal lovers, whatever. We have a democratic system, and all you need to do to win is to come up with the votes. We had an election a year ago, and Lamont and the Democrats won. Maybe 2020 or 2022 will be different. You should get busy.

      2. Public employee unions are not a special interest group. They control and suppress representative government by this type of action described above.

  2. Democrats “leaders” have consistently entered into deals with unions for Bloc Votes that are not only unrealistic but also unsustainable and should be illegal. Look at our financial condition, CT has $100 BILLION in future obligations, the majority of that is in pension, health and fringe benefits paid to union labor who ARE NOT the majority. They only represent about 300k people (both working and retired).

    There is very little chance that CT will meet its financial obligations if growth in the private sector is around 1%. Governors ARE NOT fixing the problem they are refinancing the obligations, in other words giving it to our children but without significant economic growth, or a lot of retirees dying sooner than expected, none of that will matter – we will run out of money far sooner than most people realize. On a GAAP basis, Connecticut is basically insolvent today.

  3. The case for tolls is clear — the need for money to fix and upgrade our transportation system is huge and immediate, and there is no free lunch.

    But the opposition is also fierce and well organized, and this will be a difficult vote.

    1. We have the money. We have a $21 BILLION annual budget. Democrats spend it on the wrong priorities and have done so for literally decades. Reallocate 2% of the budget and we can secure federal loans at very low interests rates but more importantly create 15-20K new jobs for the working and middle class. This are the people who Democrats are supposed to help – “the little guy”, but that is all nonsense – they are far more interested maintaining power – cronyism is alive and well in the Democrat Party.

    2. Not true. Plenty of people in this state get a free lunch. Kids in schools, teachers and state employees who didn’t get the 12 percent tax increase for the FMLA. The political class exempted themselves and their friends from that tax. 2 examples of free lunch for some in this state. Look at Massachusetts. The pols in that state get special transponders so they don’t have to pay to use the pike like everyone else. Even if they don’t do that here, our pols will be able to write it off as expense. Again 3rd free lunch. It’s only us citizens who are dumb enough to keep paying

  4. The no new taxes & no tolls Republican plan will fund those coveted construction jobs for workers and construction companies. They should support it. That plan won’t put new driving TAXES on our roads and bridges they would pay. Many of those construction workers are middle income folks who will be hurt if regressive driving TAXES are implemented, either for trucks or for all vehicles.

    I doubt those workers ride trains daily to & from Manhattan. They wouldn’t benefit from Lamont’s plan to shorten that train ride by a few minutes. However, they would be stuck paying his dream of driving TAXES to further subsidize those Manhattan train rides if he gets his way.

  5. Any plan reliant on tolls can’t begin for up to 5 years because of the time needed to install equipment. As well as the delays for finding out whether trucks-only tolls are permitted by law (in a Rhode Island court case) and whether the federal government will approve.
    The Republican plan could be begun immediately.
    So why should tolls be a priority of construction unions?
    This discussion seems incomplete. Has anyone asked the union leaders why tolls are preferable?
    Especially because a vote in favor of tolls is not entirely certain, whatever the leadership says. When the alternative’s only problem a 6 month delay in necessary budget cuts (or other actions) during the next recession, why shouldn’t a Senate Democrat vote No?
    (The last budget had a $3 billion deficit per year, made up this time by surprisingly high tax revenues and eliminating promised tax cuts. So call $3 billion the likely deficit in a downturn. The $1.5 billion Republicans want to pay into the pension fund is half that.)

  6. There has always been plenty of revenue to cover transportation in this state. The money always seems to go “elsewhere” all we end up with,no matter how many times they raise taxes and fees,is a bloated
    Ned is pretty much a one issue guy and has failed. With or without tolls,Connecticut is doomed by its past.

  7. Let’s see a comparison of costs associated with “transportation infrastructure” improvements using union vs non-union labor costs. And state employees vs private sector contractors for those same positions.

  8. What tolls, why a new tax or fee for trucks when we all know the Democrats will start taxing cars – just raise the income tax or sales tax. Instead, Democrats want to create a new monster.

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