The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT)

Should Conn. offer unemployme­nt benefits to workers on strike?

- By Mark Pazniokas

Sen. Julie Kushner, DDanbury, and Sen. Rob C. Sampson, R-Wolcott, sit elbow-to-elbow at Labor and Public Employees Committee meetings, amiably sharing a single microphone as one explains why the other is wrong.

In her third term as cochair of labor, Kushner is a retired UAW executive who ceaselessl­y pushes the panel to the edge of progressiv­e politics and policy. Sampson, a smallgover­nment conservati­ve, is her foil.

On Thursday, the committee sent to the Senate bills celebrated by Kushner and bemoaned by Sampson. One would provide unemployme­nt benefits for strikers after two weeks on the picket line.

“To me, it's an absurd notion on its face,” said Sampson, the ranking Senate Republican on the committee. “People are voluntaril­y walking off the job.”

Her position wellknown, Kushner did not bother to debate in committee. She knew she had the votes to send the measure to the Senate, where a similar bill passed last year at her urging and died without a vote in the House.

“I'm not going to change his mind. So the debate isn't really necessary,” Kushner said. “I feel pretty confident that my constituen­ts and working families in Connecticu­t understand why I'm fighting for them. And I'm not concerned that I have to win every argument with Sen. Sampson.”

The labor committee is perhaps the most partisan in the General Assembly, a venue where the prerogativ­es of management regularly collide with the demands of labor. And the difference­s embodied by Kushner and Sampson could not be sharper.

“I love this committee for that reason,” Sampson said. “There's no gray area. You either believe government is the answer, or you believe that government should play a limited role and protect people's rights so they can come up with their own answers.”

As the Senate co-chair and ranking Senate Republican, Kushner and Sampson sit together at the head of a semi-circular table. A microphone at the end of a goose-neck sits between them, yanked back and forth when they argue.

“It's never personal,” Kushner said. “And I appreciate that, because I think that is a healthier relationsh­ip, even though we couldn't be further apart in our thinking about how we should operate as a state, as a society. At the same time, we can have that conversati­on without the vitriol — in most cases.”

Sampson offered a similar view.

“She's proud of where she stands on the issues. And so am I,” Sampson said. “We have a very friendly dialogue. I don't like being on the losing side all the time. But that's, you know, part of being in Connecticu­t.”

In November, Democrats won majorities of 2412 in the Senate and 98-53 in the House. But that doesn't mean Kushner's agenda will carry beyond the confines of her committee.

The strikers' unemployme­nt bill drew only 19 votes in the Senate, a largely symbolic vote that came near the end of the 2022 session when it was clear the House would never call the measure for a vote.

New York offers jobless benefits for strikers, but Sampson said doing so in Connecticu­t would tip the scales in labor fights. Kushner disagreed. “There are many, many laws in this country that advantage the employer in that equation,” Kushner said outside the meeting. “So to suggest that somehow we're tipping the scales towards labor, I think we're trying to level the playing field.”

Jobless benefits would protect strikers against being starved into submission but not eliminate risks, she said.

“There are still risks that workers take when they go out on strike that are monumental,” Kushner said. “There's federal labor law [that] allows employers to permanentl­y replace workers in this country when they engage in a strike. That doesn't happen in other countries. If you go across the border in Canada, you can't be permanentl­y replaced.”

Labor bills typically take several years to win final passage. Last year, organized labor's priorities lay elsewhere — successful­ly pushing for final approval of a ban on “captive audience” meetings that unions say are used to thwart organizing.

This year, the strikers' bill will compete for attention with another labor priority, a “Fair Work Week” bill requiring employers to compensate hourly workers for shifts that get canceled with little notice.

Sampson complains such measures represent intrusions by the legislatur­e into areas that should be resolved by bargaining.

With only 6% of privatesec­tor workers represente­d by unions, Democratic lawmakers have argued in recent years that they have a role in shaping labormanag­ement relations in an evolving workplace.

Should seniority determine who gets called back after a layoff ? Must an employer reimburse a remote worker for internet access? What notice is owed about schedule changes, especially important to those who juggle more than one job or need care for children?

All those questions have been addressed by legislatio­n in recent years.

Another bill Democrats approved Thursday over Republican objections would bar municipali­ties from subtractin­g permanent disability payments from pension benefits.

“We believe that this is fair,” Kushner said. “If you, in service to our state in our cities and our municipali­ties, lose function of a part of your body permanentl­y, then there is a belief that you should get some monetary compensati­on for that. And it really doesn't have anything to do with your salary or in this case with your pension — or it shouldn't have anything to do with it.”

When she finished, Sampson pulled the microphone towards him.

“I appreciate that answer,” Sampson said. “And certainly, I think, people listening might agree that someone deserves compensati­on if they suffer a disability, that sort of thing. The question I guess I have is that isn't up to us to decide that.”

Sampson said the matter should be collective­ly bargained, which was the position of municipali­ties at a public hearing.

“This is something that has historical­ly been collective­ly bargained, and I think it should stay that way. Is there a reason why the collective bargaining process is not adequate in this particular situation?”

 ?? ?? State Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury
State Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury

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