Watershed moment missed with state union contract

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Creative Commons | WNPR

Our Connecticut State Legislature was faced with 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. The legislature chose the latter, and one of the most critical opportunities to change our state’s fiscal trajectory was squandered 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 percent 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 represents 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. When our governor and state legislators needed to resoundingly demonstrate that we are shifting course and enacting necessary changes to our fiscal trajectory, there ultimately weren’t up to the task. 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 the previous week for all legislators and the public to see. We should expect greater transparency in public policy. The Office of Fiscal Analysis had not even had time to weigh in on the viability of this contract. It was quite clear that public sentiment was weighing in against the power of state unions, and citizens wanted to see further contract modifications.

More should have been done. Some of the things that should have been included in this deal to achieve greater fiscal responsible:

  1. Remove all overtime from pension calculations. While this new contract moves overtime from 100 percent to 60 percent, this provision should have been removed entirely.
  2. Require employees to contribute more toward both healthcare premiums and pensions.
  3. 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. Our state is now locked into no-layoff clauses and guaranteed benefits regardless of the state of our state. This 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 percent of our workforce and the future viability of our state.

Bottom line… this union contract and the benefit adjustments don’t go far enough. They do not dramatically address Connecticut’s severe fiscal challenges and create more stability, predictability and equality to grow our state’s economy. This is why editorial boards across our state including the Hartford Courant, Journal Inquirer and The Republican American have articulated grave concerns with these contracts.

The rest of Connecticut’s workforce (97.6 percent) deserved to be heard, not just the largest state union (2.4 percent).

We are now over a month into the fiscal year without a budget. The inadequacies of this newly minted deal will be plain enough to everyone soon, as majority Democrats turn to higher taxes, doubling down on the failed fiscal policies that have gotten us where we are today. It will mean reduced municipal support, and reduced services to those in need. It didn’t have to be this way.

Our responsibility as legislators is to address these budget difficulties with courage, common sense and compassion. I intend to continue to do just that.

State Rep. Terrie Wood represents the 141 District which includes parts of Norwalk and Darien.

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