By SUSAN HAIGH, Associated Press
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ Connecticut’s state employee unions announced Thursday that rank-and-file members ratified a labor savings and concessions agreement, giving Gov. Dannel P. Malloy the go-ahead to rescind thousands of layoff notices and forgo additional state budget cuts.
Members of the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition said 14 of 15 unions voted to approve the deal, which calls for changes to the workers’ health and retirement benefits as well as wage-related concessions. The coalition sent a letter to Malloy asking him to immediately rescind the layoff notices.
“Today marks a victory for those who believe in the middle class,” Kathy Fischer, the associate director of the University of Connecticut Women’s Center, said at a news conference inside a packed Hartford union hall.
It marked the second attempt to approve a deal that Malloy has been counting on to generate $1.6 billion in savings and help balance the two-year, $40.1 billion state budget. The failure of a first vote by unionized workers in June was an embarrassment for the first-term Democrat, who has prided himself on being more pro-union than some Republican governors across the country.
Malloy said the deal showed what is possible when “management and labor work together in a respectful fashion.”
“We have achieved something the skeptics said was unachievable: we’ve made the relationship between the state and its work force sustainable. And, unlike in most other states, we did it without going to war with public employees,” Malloy said.
The failure of the first vote in June prompted Malloy to issue about 3,000 layoff notices and recommend deep spending cuts to the General Assembly to balance the budget.
While leaders of the union coalition decided to change their rules following the defeat in June _ requiring at least eight of the 15 unions to approve changes to a coveted 20-year health and retirement benefits package, instead of 14 of 15 _ leaders of the union locals said the agreement passed this time because a better job was done explaining the changes to their membership.
Lisa Marie Fontano, president of Local 387, which represents workers at the Cheshire state prison complex, said a clearer explanation about a new health care plan that requires workers to get age-appropriate medical tests, such as annual physicals, especially helped to get the deal passed. Many employees were concerned that the program was actually a proposed universal health care system known as SustiNet, but in disguise. Malloy then clarified that the health care plan had nothing to do with SustiNet, a concept that hasn’t been approved by the General Assembly.
“What happened last time, the facts were just not given,” Fontano said. “You have to make determinations on what’s before you. If there’s no consistency, you get what you ask for.”
Fontano said this time Malloy and union coalition leaders kept their distance from the ratification process.
“It ultimately was about giving people the time to read it, understand it,” she said.
Fifty-seven percent of members voted for the deal in June, but that was not enough for ratification under the union group’s old rules. After the coalition voted to make it easier to ratify changes to the benefits package, Malloy sent his labor negotiator to meet with the union leaders and “clarify” parts of the tentative agreement that posed a problem with members, such as the health care changes. As leaders tried to sell the agreement again to members, Malloy continued to issue layoff notices.
He had originally called for more than 6,500 job cuts, a figure that included layoffs, retirements and the elimination of unfilled jobs, if union members did not ratify the agreement. Some workers have already lost their jobs, and a large number who’ve received notices were expected to lose theirs on Aug. 22. As of last week, about 3,000 workers, mostly rank-and-file employees, had received pink slips. There are about 45,000 unionized state workers and a total of more than 50,000 employees.
Malloy is expected to rescind most of the additional budget cuts he proposed to the General Assembly, such as closures of Department of Motor Vehicles offices and cutbacks in programs for the disabled, children and the elderly. The Judicial Branch also proposed deep cuts, including closures of courthouses.
The deal includes a two-year wage freeze, followed by 3 percent pay raises and changes to health and retirement benefits in return for a four-year, no-layoff promise. As part of the wage freeze, workers will give up raises of 2.5 percent to 3.5 percent that took effect last month after the first deal wasn’t ratified. Besides providing savings in the current two-year budget, the agreement also is supposed to provide future savings from changes such as the retirement age for some workers, increased employee contributions for retiree health care, and mandatory mail order for prescription maintenance drugs.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)