DAN HAAR

The Register Citizen (Torrington, CT) - - FRONT PAGE - [email protected]­medi­act.com

Did La­mont say unions need to give more?

Did he or didn’t he? Only his bud­get chief knows the an­swer — if there is one.

The mys­tery is whether Gov. Ned La­mont sig­naled in his State of the State ad­dress on Wed­nes­day that pub­lic em­ployee unions need to cough up more con­ces­sions. We’re pars­ing words here, and there’s plenty for both sides to work with.

The dis­agree­ment, as you might ex­pect, di­vides along par­ti­san lines. Repub­li­cans, seek­ing more give­backs, thought they heard La­mont say he’ll push for ex­actly that, maybe even a re­open­ing of the con­tro­ver­sial health and pen­sion agree­ment that runs un­til 2027.

Many la­bor lead­ers heard a softer ap­proach from the gov­er­nor whose cam­paign gelled in April, when he won the strong sup­port of the state AFL-CIO af­ter de­liv­er­ing a pas­sion­ate prom­ise of com­rade­ship. Oth­ers wor­ried, at least at first.

Let’s look at a full show­ing of the words La­mont spoke in his first ad­dress to the Gen­eral As­sem­bly, two hours af­ter he raised his hand for the oath of of­fice in the ar­mory across the street. As you read it, think about words like “in­ac­tion” and “make the changes nec­es­sary,” for hints of what he meant.

“We can­not af­ford to let the next four years be de­fined by a fis­cal cri­sis. The fate of our great state is on a knife’s edge,” he said. “If we choose in­ac­tion and more of the same — we fail. But if we choose cre­ative and bold lead­er­ship, a com­mit­ment to make the hard and dif­fi­cult choices nec­es­sary to right the wrongs of the past — we will suc­ceed.

“Let’s fix this damn bud­get, once and for all!

“... I refuse to in­vest any time in the blame game of who’s re­spon­si­ble for this cri­sis. It’s real, it’s here and it’s time to con­front it head on. And, please don’t tell me you’ve done your share and it’s some­body else’s turn. It’s all of our turns.”

Then he ad­dressed dif­fer­ent groups.

“State em­ploy­ees and la­bor lead­ers: I have been so im­pressed by the qual­ity of the folks who work for the state of Con­necti­cut. I am a strong be­liever in la­bor, and now is the time to show that col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing works in tough times, as well as good times. As our li­a­bil­i­ties con­tinue to grow faster than our as­sets, to­gether we have to make the changes nec­es­sary to en­sure that re­tire­ment se­cu­rity is a

re­al­ity for our younger, as well as our older, state em­ploy­ees, and do that with­out break­ing the bank.”

That last bit about mak­ing changes, com­bined with the part about do­ing your share, gives hard­lin­ers hope that La­mont will toughen his stance to­ward the unions.

“He was re­fer­ring to ex­act­ing some con­ces­sions,” said Pat O’Neil, spokesman for the House Repub­li­cans and a long­time Capi­tol in­sider — real con­ces­sions, per­haps.

He added, “We won’t know how mean­ing­ful those words were for months, if in fact that’s what he meant,” af­ter bud­get talks for fis­cal 2020 are done.

Af­ter La­mont spoke those words, three union lead­ers sent texts to Jody Barr, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of AFSCME Coun­cil 4, which rep­re­sents 15,000 state em­ploy­ees. They won­dered whether that meant more de­mands for give­backs.

“They were cu­ri­ous, like when he said, ‘in good times and bad times,’ what does that mean? He didn’t say con­ces­sions,” Barr said.

“Maybe it’s PTSD from what hap­pened in the past, but I think our mem­bers were just con­cerned,” Barr said, re­fer­ring to post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der.

Barr and oth­ers per­suaded the fear­ful ones that La­mont will stick with his prom­ises to stick by unions — but will seek “win­win” changes that save the state money with­out hurt­ing work­ers, like the 2011 pre­ven­tive health re­quire­ments.

His ex­pres­sion is that la­bor will be at the ta­ble, not on the ta­ble. “He in­cluded us in the cam­paign, he in­cluded us in the tran­si­tion, and now we’re go­ing to be part of his term as gov­er­nor,” said Barr, a calm sort who’s not given to the bom­bas­tics of some la­bor lead­ers.

Both sides say they feel harmed by the bud­gets of the last decade. For­mer Gov. Dan­nel P. Mal­loy en­acted two big tax in­creases, Repub­li­cans say, with­out ex­tract­ing enough from la­bor. “The shared sac­ri­fices were not in fact so shared,” O’Neil said.

The unions claim their six re­cent years of pay freezes, 3 per­cent across the board charges for health care for at least ten years, 2 per­cent floors for pen­sion, higher co-pays and lower ben­e­fits for new em­ploy­ees all rep­re­sent more than enough. “We are very very sen­si­tive to our mem­ber­ship’s give­backs again and again and again,” Barr said.

Barr tells a story about lead­ers of the three rank-and-file corrections unions, to­tal­ing 5,000 mem­bers, up­set that La­mont named Rollin Cook, a re­former from Utah, as com­mis­sioner — with­out con­sult­ing them.

“We reached out to Ned with our con­cerns, and Ned did the right thing and called those lo­cal pres­i­dents and had a dis­cus­sion with them about why he made the de­ci­sion he made.”

Cri­sis averted — but now they get harder. La­mont’s bud­get pro­posal isn’t due un­til mid- to late-Fe­bru­ary. His of­fice didn’t is­sue any state­ments clear­ing up the ques­tion, prob­a­bly be­cause La­mont and bud­get czar Melissa McCaw don’t know yet.

My guess is he’ll be able to avert a stand­off this year us­ing mea­sures be­sides call­ing the unions back to re­open the 201727 deal, such as tap­ping part of the rainy day fund.

If the econ­omy doesn’t co­op­er­ate in 2020, all bets are off — on both sides. That may be un­fair but it could be nec­es­sary.

Em­i­lie Mun­son / Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia

Lori Pel­letier, for­mer pres­i­dent of the Con­necti­cut AFL-CIO, spoke at the la­bor fed­er­a­tion’s po­lit­i­cal con­ven­tion at the Hart­ford Hil­ton Ho­tel in Au­gust.

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