State employee unions announced Thursday that on the second try they have ratified a labor savings and concessions agreement that will avert thousands of layoffs and, according to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, close a $1.6 billion budget gap in the next two years and save $21.5 billion over 20 years.
"Our members have spoken decisively and overwhelmingly," Dawn Tyson, a unionized state employee for the Department of Social Services, announced at a press conference in Hartford staged by the negotiating coalition for the 15 state employee unions, the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition, or SEBAC.
"This is an historic agreement," Malloy told reporters later at the state Capitol. "It represents the most fundamental restructuring of the relationship between state government and state workers that has ever occurred in the state of Connecticut. ... And it takes a relationship that is unsustainable" in bad economic times "and makes it sustainable."
The vote, conducted in recent weeks, was 25,713 to 9,791 for ratification of the agreement to make cost-savings changes in health care and pension benefits for the state's 45,000 unionized workers. By a higher margin, the employees also approved changes in their individual unions' contracts with the state that call for a two-year wage freeze in exchange for a four-year guarantee of no layoffs.
The vote tallies would have been sufficient to ratify the deal even under the stricter rules that applied the first time around when the deal was rejected in June -- even though 57 percent voted in favor of it -- under the original SEBAC requirement that 14 of 15 unions and 80 percent of employees had to vote "yes." SEBAC changed its bylaws after that failure so that approval was required only by eight of the 15 unions representing more than 50 percent of employees.
The June rejection had embarrassed union leaders and Malloy, who has prided himself on his non-confrontational negotiations in contrast with governors elsewhere.
Nearly all voting ended Wednesday with 14 unions approving. Only the state troopers' union results had still not come in.
Approval of the deal came as about 3,000 state employees had received layoff notices following the June rejection of the agreement. Malloy said his administration will move quickly to rescind most, if not all, of those layoffs; some management and temporary employees without union representation won't be recalled, administration officials have said.
"As important as it is that we've closed the current budget deficit in a responsible way -- by avoiding thousands of layoffs and hundreds of millions of dollars in painful spending cuts -- the real value of this agreement lies in the $21.5 billion it will save taxpayers over the next 20 years in the form of lower health care and retirement costs for state employees," Malloy said in a statement issued after the results were announced.
The ratification in the do-over vote was fueled largely by a surge of "yes" votes from employees whose major concerns centered on changes in their health care plan. The second time around, union leaders and Malloy's people clarified language on health care and other matters that had been stumbling blocks, assuaging concerns.
Some employees gave personal explanations for the turnaround Thursday afternoon as they stood in a packed and sweltering union hall on Capitol Avenue in Hartford, where Tyson's announcement of the voting results elicited whoops and cheers.
Several said it was mostly a lack of time that helped doom the deal the first time around.
"It was a super complex deal, especially the conceptual shift around health care. ... Getting it passed in the time frame we originally had was always going to be a challenge," said Jason Jones, an English professor at Central Connecticut State University and president of the school's chapter of the American Association of University Professors.
State workers will have to participate in wellness programs and undergo certain health care screenings or pay higher benefits. While such programs are becoming increasingly popular in the private sector, they were seen as a radical change for many state employees, Jones said. "At first when you hear it, it sounds really Orwellian ... like the state's going to know what you're doing with your doctor. Helping people understand it was a real challenge."
Some employees had also worried that the health care changes would force them into a state-run health care program known as SustiNet -- which included a public option for the uninsured but failed to gain any traction at the Capitol. Still, fears by employees of being cast into SustiNet were widespread during the first vote. After the pact was shot down the first time, union leaders held a flurry of informational sessions to defuse such worries and convince workers that it was in their best interest to vote yes.
Still, some union members continued to oppose the deal. "It's a really bad day for unions in Connecticut," said Lisa Herskowitz, a prosecutor in Manchester who has filed a complaint against SEBAC, saying that the coalition violated its own rules by bargaining with the Malloy administration about wages and by reopening the pension and health care agreement that was in effect until 2017.
Herskowitz predicted other attempts to challenge the outcome.
"There will be lawsuits. They have already been drawn up. They're just waiting to be filed."
Malloy, appearing a little later before cameras and reporters in the Capitol's ornate Old Judiciary Room, praised state employees and their union leaders: "I want to thank my fellow state employees. They have stepped up to the plate. They have made real sacrifice."
But the Democrat's mood turned defiant as he addressed critics not in attendance whom he did not name -- although they clearly included Connecticut legislative Republicans and New Jersey's Republican governor, Chris Christie, with whom Malloy has feuded over cable TV about each other's differing approaches to negotiations with state employees.
"There were many people who said we could not reach an agreement that we achieved here this day," he said. "They were wrong."
"There were many people who said when the first agreement was rejected that I should renegotiate the terms of the agreement, or it would fail a second time," he continued. "They were wrong."
"And when the first agreement failed, there were many people who said I should just go on with Plan B" -- his alternative budget with heavy cuts in personnel and state services. "They said that I'd been taken for a ride and that I'd gotten what I deserved for negotiating respectfully with fellow state employees."
He kept rolling: "Some people even suggested that the rejection of the agreement proved that Hartford was too difficult for me to navigate, and that I was naive to think that we could implement real change. Obviously they were wrong. On that point they were very, very wrong."
He said he felt "pretty good" about his relationship with state employees and their unions. "That's not to say that feathers haven't been ruffled," he said. "I'm sure they have. But we needed to get to this point. And in comparison to how other states have done it, we in Connecticut can be proud."
Union leaders called on Malloy Thursday to follow through on past statements that he would thin out what they called "wasteful" layers of management in state government that the governor has barely touched so far. Malloy told reporters that he would do it but didn't tie himself to a time schedule: "That will be done on an ongoing basis."
Malloy backed off a stance he took last month when the state Senate passed a bill to exclude overtime pay from the calculation of state employees' pensions. The bill passed in the Senate -- with Malloy saying he supported it. But House Speaker Christopher Donovan, D-Meriden, then refused to take up the bill in his chamber, and it has sat on the House calendar since then. Donovan's press secretary said Thursday, after the ratification by the unions, that the bill is now dead.
Malloy was asked whether he still wanted the House to act on the bill, since he had voiced his support for the reform in the pension calculation. A "yes" answer would have been tough on Donovan, who needs organized labor's support in his quest for the Democratic nomination for the 5th District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. But Malloy said no. "I think the necessity of ... that is supplanted by the fact that we have an agreement in place."
Malloy said the new agreement changes the pension calculation formula for new employees, hired since July 1, so that rather than basing pensions on their top three years of salary, the new standard would be the employee's last five salary years. But that leaves 45,000 current employees or so to retire under the current, often-abused system until the new SEBAC agreement expires in 2022. The old one would have run out in 2017.
Malloy said it's important to note that the new agreement eliminates controversial "longevity payments" -- twice-a-year payments to employees with more than 10 years' service merely for still being state workers -- for new employees hired after July 1.
Malloy left his budget director, Ben Barnes, to deal Friday with how the agreement's ratification will affect several issues, including:
State facilities in Enfield: The local Republican state senator, John Kissel, said he understands that the deal will save the local Department of Motor Vehicles office, albeit with reduced services, and the Superior Court there, although the Enfield correctional institution is still slated to close. "My constituents are breathing a sigh of relief. It's good news for north central Connecticut," said Kissel.
"Happy, very happy," Enfield resident Ellen Messek said, although she said she thought the DMV office should be kept full service, especially because her son would be getting his driver's license soon. "It was full service and it should stay that way."
Mass transit: The Malloy administration proposed fare increases and service cuts as part of its "Plan B" austerity budget in case the unions rejected concessions but has acknowledged that it might keep pursuing some or all of those proposals anyway. The state Department of Transportation will conduct hearings next week on scaling back some Connecticut Transit bus schedules, eliminating all weekend trains on the Shore Line East route, boosting bus fares by 10 percent and raising Metro-North ticket prices by 16.5 percent. As of Thursday, the plan is still to make those changes on Nov. 1, a Malloy spokeswoman said.
State ferries: Despite the news of the agreement, those working to save the Rocky Hill-Glastonbury and Chester-Hadlyme ferries said it's only a first step. "If there is anything good coming out of this is, it is the fact that everyone is talking about this and figuring ways to save the ferries," said Dave Scampoli, a Glastonbury resident who has been fighting to save the service.
"The focus needs to be on fixing the ferry and recognizing there are inefficiencies that must be improved on and other avenues of funding that must be pursued," he added.
Down at the Chester-Hadlyme ferry, news that the historic crossings might be saved was met with skepticism. From the wheelhouse of the ferryboat Selden III, churning back and forth across the river below Gillette Castle, Capt. Tom Darcy, a 20-year DOT veteran, said he still has doubts. "I got my layoff notice in the mail from the DOT," he said. "Until I see a piece of paper that guarantees my job, I'm not going to celebrate."
Nearby, on the deck of the vessel, wearing a "Save the Ferry T-Shirt" was Linda E. Ryder Munet of East Haddam, a member of the Save the Ferry Task Force.
"Regardless of the vote, the ferries are in danger," she said, as she handed out fliers to passengers and urged their support. "We have been told that the DOT is planning to go ahead with this anyway."
The DOT will be holding several informational hearings next week to discuss the ferries' status.
Motor vehicles: At the DMV office in Old Saybrook, Keith Abel, a boat salesman at Maritime Boat Sales in Chester, said he was happy to hear that closing the Old Saybrook office might not be necessary. "I come here probably once a week," Abel said. "With Old Saybrook being what we call boat alley and having a lot of car dealers, this office is important. When we sell a boat we register it for the clients as a convenience."
Motor vehicles branch offices in Danbury, New Britain, Old Saybrook, and Enfield, along with a satellite office in Putnam and photo license centers in Derby, Middletown and Milford, were all targeted for closure if the unions failed to ratify the savings-and-concessions deal.
Deb Quinn and her son James Quinn said that if the Old Saybrook office and other offices can be saved, state residents would benefit from shorter wait times at each office. "We have a business so we register a lot of vehicles, so it will be a relief if [Old Saybrook] stays open," Deb Quinn said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at