Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury, and Sen. Rob C. Sampson, R-Wolcott, sit elbow-to-elbow at Labor and Public Employees Committee meetings, amiably sharing a single microphone as one explains why the other is wrong.

In her third term as co-chair of labor, Kushner is a retired UAW executive who ceaselessly pushes the panel to the edge of progressive politics and policy. Sampson, a small-government conservative, is her foil.

On Thursday, the committee sent to the Senate bills celebrated by Kushner and bemoaned by Sampson. One would provide unemployment benefits for strikers after two weeks on the picket line.

“To me, it’s an absurd notion on its face,” said Sampson, the ranking Senate Republican on the committee. “People are voluntarily walking off the job.”

Her position well-known, Kushner did not bother to debate in committee. She knew she had the votes to send the measure to the Senate, where a similar bill passed last year at her urging and died without a vote in the House.

“I’m not going to change his mind. So the debate isn’t really necessary,” Kushner said. “I feel pretty confident that my constituents and working families in Connecticut understand why I’m fighting for them. And I’m not concerned that I have to win every argument with Sen. Sampson.”

The labor committee is perhaps the most partisan in the General Assembly, a venue where the prerogatives of management regularly collide with the demands of labor. And the differences embodied by Kushner and Sampson could not be sharper.

“I love this committee for that reason,” Sampson said. “There’s no gray area. You either believe government is the answer, or you believe that government should play a limited role and protect people’s rights so they can come up with their own answers.”

As the Senate co-chair and ranking Senate Republican, Kushner and Sampson sit together at the head of a semi-circular table. A microphone at the end of a goose-neck sits between them, yanked back and forth when they argue.

“It’s never personal,” Kushner said. “And I appreciate that, because I think that is a healthier relationship, even though we couldn’t be further apart in our thinking about how we should operate as a state, as a society. At the same time, we can have that conversation without the vitriol — in most cases.”

Sampson offered a similar view.

“She’s proud of where she stands on the issues. And so am I,” Sampson said. “We have a very friendly dialogue. I don’t like being on the losing side all the time. But that’s, you know, part of being in Connecticut.”

In November, Democrats won majorities of 24-12 in the Senate and 98-53 in the House. But that doesn’t mean Kushner’s agenda will carry beyond the confines of her committee.

The strikers’ unemployment bill drew only 19 votes in the Senate, a largely symbolic vote that came near the end of the 2022 session when it was clear the House would never call the measure for a vote.

New York offers jobless benefits for strikers, but Sampson said doing so in Connecticut would tip the scales in labor fights.

Kushner disagreed.

“There are many, many laws in this country that advantage the employer in that equation,” Kushner said outside the meeting. “So to suggest that somehow we’re tipping the scales towards labor, I think we’re trying to level the playing field.”

Jobless benefits would protect strikers against being starved into submission but not eliminate risks, she said.

“There are still risks that workers take when they go out on strike that are monumental,” Kushner said. “There’s federal labor law [that] allows employers to permanently replace workers in this country when they engage in a strike. That doesn’t happen in other countries. If you go across the border in Canada, you can’t be permanently replaced.”

Labor bills typically take several years to win final passage. Last year, organized labor’s priorities lay elsewhere — successfully pushing for final approval of a ban on “captive audience” meetings that unions say are used to thwart organizing.

This year, the strikers’ bill will compete for attention with another labor priority, a “Fair Work Week” bill requiring employers to compensate hourly workers for shifts that get canceled with little notice.

Sampson complains such measures represent intrusions by the legislature into areas that should be resolved by bargaining. 

With only 6% of private-sector workers represented by unions, Democratic lawmakers have argued in recent years that they have a role in shaping labor-management relations in an evolving workplace.

Should seniority determine who gets called back after a layoff? Must an employer reimburse a remote worker for internet access? What notice is owed about schedule changes, especially important to those who juggle more than one job or need care for children?

All those questions have been addressed by legislation in recent years.

Another bill Democrats approved Thursday over Republican objections would bar municipalities from subtracting permanent disability payments from pension benefits.

“We believe that this is fair,” Kushner said. “If you, in service to our state in our cities and our municipalities, lose function of a part of your body permanently, then there is a belief that you should get some monetary compensation for that. And it really doesn’t have anything to do with your salary or in this case with your pension — or it shouldn’t have anything to do with it.”

When she finished, Sampson pulled the microphone towards him.

They sit side by side, separated by an ideological divide: Sen. Rob Sampson and Sen. Julie Kushner at a labor committee meeting Thursday. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

“I appreciate that answer,” Sampson said. “And certainly, I think, people listening might agree that someone deserves compensation if they suffer a disability, that sort of thing. The question I guess I have is that isn’t up to us to decide that.”

Sampson said the matter should be collectively bargained, which was the position of municipalities at a public hearing.

“This is something that has historically been collectively bargained, and I think it should stay that way. Is there a reason why the collective bargaining process is not adequate in this particular situation?”

Kushner replied that not every employee is unionized and has access to collective bargaining. Sampson pounced on that answer.

“I know that you’re an advocate for collective bargaining, and here we are, we’re saying that collective bargaining is not working in this particular situation, and that we’ve got to step in,” Sampson said. “And I will just say for the record that, I’ve seen more and more of this in recent years.”

As did the municipalities, Sampson argued that the bill would impose an unfunded mandate on cities and towns, one whose cost could not be readily calculated.

Kushner said whatever the cost, it is one that should be borne when a firefighter or other employee is permanently disabled on the job. And she took issue with any suggestion that she believes collective bargaining doesn’t work.

“I’ve never said collective bargaining doesn’t work,” Kushner said. “What I said is that I believe we have an obligation to set public policy, even where there is an opportunity to collectively bargain around those issues.”

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.