Wood: Watershed moment with the state union contract
Our Connecticut State Legislature is poised to make a truly historic choice; either dig our state out of a $5 billion biennial fiscal abyss responsibly or, once again, allow the state unions to reap asymmetrical benefits that significantly exceed both the private sector workforce and state employees from any other state in the country. One of the most critical opportunities to change our state’s fiscal trajectory is here right now, with the renegotiation of our state union workers contract.
The state legislature has the responsibility of setting sound fiscal policy to help grow our state’s economy and stimulate equitable employment opportunities for all workers within Connecticut; not just reward those in state unions. There are currently 45,000 state union employees (and 45,000 retirees) representing 2.4% of the entire Connecticut workforce. These union members serve within the departments of education, transportation, public safety, health, social services, consumer protection and motor vehicles et al., as well as staff all six constitutional offices.
The Executive Branch negotiates all labor agreements. To his credit, Governor Dannel P. Malloy requested opening up this key contract (due to expire in 2022) to help address the $5.1 billion projected budget deficit and the $100 billion of unfunded pension liabilities. Recent negotiations, held behind closed doors with labor leaders, yielded a new contract that was overwhelmingly approved by the rank and file. While I believe this contract draft reflects a step in the right direction, it does not go far enough to make sound fiscal sense or instill much-needed confidence in our citizenry or business communities. Our governor and state legislators need to resoundingly prove we are shifting course and enact necessary changes to our fiscal trajectory. Unfortunately, this new union contract signifies continued subservience to a special interest group that is, in effect, running our state.
What’s more troubling? Contract details were just disclosed last week for all legislators and the public to see. We should expect greater transparency in public policy. The Office of Fiscal Analysis has not even had time to weigh in on the viability of this contract. With a possible legislative vote slated as early as this week*, it is critical that more time be given to understanding all details. It is quite clear that public sentiment is weighing in against the power of state unions, and citizens want to see further contract modifications.
Three aspects of this contract need to be addressed to make it more fiscally responsible for our state:
- Remove all overtime from pension calculations. While this new contract moves overtime from 100% to 60%, this provision needs to be removed entirely.
- Require employees to contribute more toward both healthcare premiums and pensions.
- Eliminate both the no-layoff clause until 2021 and the extension of benefits until 2027. Extending a labor contract for another ten years is unthinkable given the current severity of Connecticut’s fiscal challenges and the future promise from rapidly changing technology. To lock our state into no-layoff clauses and guaranteed benefits regardless of the state of our state is irresponsible and not in the best interests of anyone except union leaders.
My “clarion call” is not meant to spark a debate about the merits of unions and collective bargaining, but rather, to focus on the level of benefits and how much is enough. A state union leader was quoted, “ this contract is the best and longest public sector pension contract in the country.” This contract negotiation is also about the power our state unions exert over the majority Democrats, who control the executive and legislative branches. Unions were founded with good reason in the early 20th century when worker abuse was rampant. Now, the work our state workers do is highly valued, and their rights are protected. We need to respect them for all they contribute, but not at the expense of the other 97.6% of our workforce and the future viability of our state.
Bottom line… does this union contract and the benefit adjustments go far enough? Do they dramatically address Connecticut’s severe fiscal challenges and create more stability, predictability and equality to grow our state’s economy? No, I believe they do not. And, editorial boards across our state including the Hartford Courant, Journal Inquirer and The Republican American have articulated grave concerns with these contracts.
This is a watershed moment for our state. We are voting within the next week*. We urgently need a fairer and more balanced union agreement. If you believe the rest of Connecticut’s workforce (97.6%) deserves to be heard, not just the largest state union (2.4%), please reach out to your state senator and state representative and share your thoughts. Push back… we are a democracy and your view and voice count!
*Note: Late Monday 7/24, the Democrats and their union leaders rushed this contract to vote in the House before the public was fully aware of details and able to push for critical modifications. The Senate will vote on Monday 7/31.
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