State Heads Toward Layoffs, Shutdowns Neither Side Wants
Governor, Unions Don't Want To Make Jobless Rate Worse
By CHRISTOPHER KEATING
July 17, 2011
With 6,500 jobs and numerous state services on the line, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the state employee unions remained entangled last week in a high-stakes standoff as they struggled toward a single goal: avert layoffs at a time when Connecticut's unemployment rate is already at 9.1 percent.
A governor in the middle of a statewide "jobs tour" and union leaders desperate to save union jobs are both hoping to slip out of the noose in a way that would make Houdini proud.
Malloy increased the pressure on the unions day by day, launching layoff notices, then announcing the closure of motor vehicles branches, welfare offices, and other state services — cutbacks that could well prove politically unpalatable with legislators and the general public.
Amid the governor's gloomy missives, however, some insiders still did not believe that the layoffs would ever take place. They are calculating that the unions have a rescue plan that would allow them to ratify a concessions agreement that would fill the $1.6 billion hole in the state budget for the next two years, and negate the need for deep cuts and layoffs.
On Monday, top union leaders will meet to consider changing their bylaws in a way that would make it easier to approve an updated savings-and-concession deal with Malloy. By making a slight change in the agreement that has already been crafted, the rank-and-file could vote again and potentially need only a simple majority to pass the changes.
In the first union deal, 57 percent of those voting approved the agreement, but that was not enough under the complicated union rules. Those rules state that workers in 14 of the 15 unions — representing 80 percent of the overall membership — must approve any changes in health care and pension benefits.
No Single Voice
Negotiations are often straightforward discussions between two sides, but the multi-headed union coalition involves 15 unions with 34 bargaining units and 45,000 employees who do not agree with each other on all issues.
Roy Occhiogrosso, Malloy's senior adviser, said he has given up trying to predict what the unions will do and the chances of the layoffs' being rescinded.
"That's up to them,'' Occhiogrosso said. "It's not something that the governor is counting on having happen. If it happens, then we will revisit it at that point. But at this point, this is the budget that we have. … I think we have to wait and see what happens on Monday.''
Matt O'Connor, a spokesman for the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition, declined to provide details on exactly what the unions will do, but he said that Malloy's proposed cuts and closures are unacceptable.
"The alternative to a mutual agreement is mutually assured destruction in which everybody loses: the governor, the legislature, the unions, every business, large and small, and the innocent people caught in the middle,'' O'Connor said. "It's nothing short of a disaster. I've seen the list [of Malloy's budget cuts]. It's ugly. If you want a picture perfect example of 'off the charts,' this list is it.''
The proposed closures of prisons, courthouses, law libraries, welfare offices, motor vehicles branches, a juvenile jail and other government buildings would have an unwelcome spillover effect for surrounding businesses.
"It's bad for economic recovery,'' O'Connor said. "It's bad for the pizza shop owner in Enfield, and once that courthouse closes, they lose business. This is just a recipe for catastrophe.''
Among insiders, everyone from the workers themselves to House Speaker Chris Donovan, the most powerful labor supporter in the legislature, wants to avoid layoffs. Although layoffs have been ordered in more than 40 departments, some lawmakers believe that the consequences of service cuts are so dire that only the unions can bail out the state — and themselves — from severe economic pain for many families.
"This plan would harm our state in significant ways,'' Donovan said. "That is why I am urging the governor and SEBAC to reach an agreement. That is the most responsible action available.''
With more than 1,000 layoff notices already given to employees and budget cuts moving closer to reality, the unions have taken the step to seriously consider changing the bylaws to avoid the layoffs.
"It's become eminently more believable to the rank and file that it will happen,'' said Matthew J. Hennessy, a longtime Democratic political operative. "Those folks have gotten a wake-up call that it is real. At the end of the day, this will resolve itself. There will be some people laid off, but the majority will remain when the smoke clears. … The ball is clearly in the unions' court. They're slowly coming to the right answer, which is to come to an agreement with the governor.''
The situation was unsettled, lurching back and forth, from the moment Malloy made his initial layoff threat in mid-February. But it has become increasingly dire since the rank and file rejected the deal that their leaders crafted.
"There has been a continually evolving strategy on the part of all the actors,'' said Hennessy. "This is just another piece of the evolution.''
House Republican leader Larry Cafero of Norwalk said that Malloy clearly miscalculated the amount of negativity within the rank and file and had no idea that the deal was going south. As such, the governor and his budget team have had to scramble to create a back-up plan to close the now-projected gap of $1.6 billion over two years.
"The governor is a very confident man, and in my opinion, underestimated this process and, frankly, this job,'' Cafero said. "So when he supposedly reached a deal, and I have publicly criticized that deal, he put up the 'Mission Accomplished' sign. And it fell apart. There wasn't any thought in his mind that this would ever happen. I think they're winging it right now. They're winging it!''
But, based on a law written in special session, Cafero said he believes that the Democratic-controlled legislature will allow Malloy's cuts to stand without making any changes.
"I predict we will never come back here, as a group, to vote on this,'' Cafero said.
The legislature has set a deadline of Aug. 31 for a new SEBAC agreement.
Seeking A Solution
Andrew Matthews, president of the state police union, said his union voted against the deal because they did not want to make more concessions.
"We think that reducing the budget by laying off state troopers who are vital to protecting the safety of all of us standing here and the governor — state troopers protect the governor — [is] not somewhere to cut funds,'' Matthews said. "There are other ways to save money in state government.''
"In 2009, under Gov. [M. Jodi] Rell, we made substantial concessions, and I think it was really hard for our members to swallow another concessions deal asking for greater'' concessions, Matthews said. "I think the overwhelming no vote was a reflection of the frustration of our membership. … We're to trying to find a solution to this mess.''
Matthews rejected the idea that Malloy laid off the troopers in retaliation for voting against the concessions deal.
"I wouldn't suggest that, no, because I personally believe the layoffs could have been far greater than 57,'' Matthews said. "We saw 97 layoffs — 40 civilian and 57 troopers.''
Matthews remembers the days when it seemed like the sky was falling two decades ago. Instead, the layoffs were averted when the state income tax was enacted.
"In 1991,'' he said, "Gov. Weicker laid off 111 troopers, and we brought back 109 troopers.''
Since Malloy's budget cuts are so deep — and politically unacceptable to both Republicans and Democrats — some believe that they will not happen.
Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, who ran against Malloy on the ticket with Republican Tom Foley, believes the battle is far from over.
"Do I really think that the governor is going to shut down the Danbury DMV? Probably not,'' Boughton wrote in his blog. "The positioning of a possible closure is just a way for the Malloy administration to put more pressure on the state employee unions who have rejected the initial 'concession' package. Lots of unhappy taxpayers and unhappy residents who use the service mean more pressure on the union leadership and its members to figure out a way to unwind the recent rejection.''
Boughton added, "Don't worry yet, people. This is just an opening gambit to turn up the heat on the unions.''
But O'Connor, the union spokesman, says they are highly aware that the calendar is getting tighter for the unions to take action.
"We all know we're working under a constricted calendar. Everyone is anxious to get this matter resolved,'' he said. "In particular, now when we have workers who know their last day on the job, that adds a renewed and much higher degree of urgency to getting to a mutually accepted resolution. The alternative is mutually agreed destruction.''
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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