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Is Labor Deal A Bargain?

State Unions Should Ratify Accord With Malloy

Matt Venhorst

May 22, 2011

As a state employee in the middle of my initial probationary period, I was elated last week when the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition, known as SEBAC, and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's negotiating team announced a tentative agreement on wage and benefit concessions.

The deal meant I could keep the job I genuinely enjoy coming to each day; that no more of my colleagues would be laid off; and that Connecticut's $3.7 billion budget deficit nightmare would be over. My enthusiasm was short-lived, however, as just minutes after hearing of the tentative bargain, I learned that some of my fellow state employees would be voting "no" to any concessions a decision they had reached before even learning the details of the agreement. Before casting their "no" vote, I ask simply that my fellow state employees consider the following:

First, this agreement must be considered within the broader context of the recent backlash against public sector workers. Without delving into the particulars, consider what's happened in Wisconsin, New Jersey, Ohio and a host of other states. Although the familiar refrain that "we state employees didn't create this mess" is no doubt true, it is also true that the state employee compensation structure is unsustainable.

To take just two examples, the state pension fund is woefully underfunded, and the system of providing health insurance to retirees at no cost to the vast majority of current state employees is out of touch with broader market realities. In short, changes need to be made, and the present agreement is a reasonable, relatively painless way to modify an outmoded system of compensation.

Second, the rejection of this tentative agreement would result in rising costs to all state residents, including state employees. Although the details of Gov. Malloy's infamous "Plan B" are far from clear, the alternative budget is certain to include reduced state aid to Connecticut's cities and towns in addition to a variety of other highly distasteful outcomes.

As municipalities grapple with decreased funding at this late date in the budget cycle, they would undoubtedly be forced to raise taxes to compensate for the lost revenue as well as slash their own budgets. The result would inevitably be layoffs of local employees including teachers and other school employees which would lead to increased class sizes and the elimination of countless programs and services on which residents rely.

Third, while the SEBAC agreement is clearly about more than just job security, no current union employees could be laid off for the next four years an enviable assurance indeed in the present economic environment.

With the current Connecticut unemployment rate at 9 percent, cutting thousands of employees from the state payroll would ruin the lives of countless families while compounding the state's unemployment crisis. It goes without saying that this would exacerbate the state's financial situation as unemployment insurance payments are made and displaced workers and their families curtail spending precipitously.

I am not asking all state employees blindly to vote in favor of the agreement regardless of its terms and irrespective of employees' individual circumstances. Rather, I respectfully request that all state employees carefully consider the implications of a rejection of this tentative agreement, and to think about more than just themselves when casting their vote.

Matt Venhorst of West Hartford is a staff attorney for the state Department of Education.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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