Union leaders voted Monday to amend the complex set of bylaws that have thus far prevented them from ratifying an agreement with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy that would close a $1.6 billion hole in the state budget while avoiding .
Although a new vote would still need to be taken before any concession agreement was reached – and, depending on whom you talked to, a new agreement worked out – both union leaders and the governor applauded the announcement Monday as “good news” that moved the state closer to a deal with its more than 45,000 unionized employees that would plug Connecticut’s budget gap while preventing painful layoffs and the closing of facilities throughout the state.
The news was first announced Monday afternoon through a posting to the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition’s website, which represents the bulk of Connecticut’s unionized state employees, under the headline: “Union Leaders Take Action to Put their Members on a Path Forward that Protects Jobs and Benefits, Preserves Vital Services.”
“The alternative budget plans released Friday show that any alternative is unacceptable,” said the posting, credited to Matt O’Connor, an SEBAC spokesman. “The cuts in the executive and judicial branch budget would quickly cause chaos and create a Connecticut that none of us recognizes. The people (of) the state will be the collateral damage if public safety, health, education, social service, transportation, criminal justice, and other services are slashed as spelled out.”
Union leaders then held a press conference at 3:30 p.m. on the steps of the state Capitol in Hartford to formally announce the bylaw changes.
The concession agreement that union leaders originally struck with Malloy included a mix of wage freezes and modifications to current health care and pension agreements, in exchange for the promise of no layoffs for state workers over the next four years. That agreement was approved by about 57 percent of rank and file union employees in June, and 11 of SEBAC’s 15 member unions; under SEBAC’s previous bylaws, at least 80 percent of unionized employees and 14 of SEBAC’s 15 unions needed to approve the agreement for it to be ratified.
Under the new bylaws, which went into affect Monday, a simple majority of at least eight of SEBAC’s 15 unions, as well as a simple majority of union members, would need to approve any new concession agreement.
“I think that union leaders, after the ratification process that just wrapped up, recognized that we had a structure that didn’t respect a fundamental Democratic principal – and that is that majority rules,” O’Connor told Patch at the Capitol. “What we had were an internal set of processes that made it very difficult for union members to have an opportunity to have their vote count and have their voices heard.”
Shortly after union leaders announced the bylaw changes, Malloy’s office released a statement in which the governor hailed the announcement as “good news” and predicted striking a “clarified agreement” with union leadership in “a couple of days.”
“It’s good news that the unions have changed their ratification process to one that respects the will of the majority,” Malloy said. “Over the next few days Mark Ojakian will be speaking with SEBAC leaders to understand which issues in the agreement need to be clarified. Given the limited number of issues that have been identified as problematic, it shouldn’t take more than a couple of days to have a clarified agreement that’s ready to be voted on by all state employees.”
But many questions still remained Monday afternoon, and union leaders seemed reluctant or hesitant to commit to many firm answers to a process with no previous precedent.
When would a new agreement be reached? What would it entail? What if union members again rejected the agreement? What would happen to contracted wage increases that most state employees began to receive at the beginning of the new fiscal year, July 1? What if a new agreement could not be reached in time to save the jobs of employees who have already received layoff notices?
“We’ll roll up our sleeves and try to work out what the differences are,” said Leo Canty, a vice president for the Connecticut chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, who appeared with O’Connor at the Capitol Wednesday, adding that union leaders hoped to reach a new agreement with Malloy’s administration “as soon as possible.”
When asked if such an agreement would include a retroactive provision to rehire any workers who were laid off before a deal could be ratified, O’Connor replied, “we are going to fight for every single member of our unions.”
Charlene Bell, a 15-year employee at the Department of Developmental Services' training facility in Southbury who received a layoff notice last week, said she believed that most union members did not understand the serious ramifications that would result from voting against Malloy’s initial concession agreement, but that she has since spoken to many who now have a different perception of the importance of reaching an agreement since the news of .
“I don’t think people really understood what they were voting for,” Bell said. “…I don’t think people realized the outcome. But here, with all the news of layoffs and closings, I think people are realizing that it’s happening.”