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Connecticut Unions Approve Deal To Change Health, Retirement Benefits To Close Budget Gap

Connecticut Unions

SUSAN HAIGH   08/18/11 06:12 PM ET   AP

HARTFORD, Conn. — Connecticut's unionized state employees overwhelmingly ratified a labor savings and concessions agreement Thursday in a second-chance vote aimed at closing a state budget gap without layoffs or deeper spending cuts.

The vote allows Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to rescind thousands of layoff notices and forgo additional budget cuts ranging from courthouse closures to reduced services for the disabled.

Members of the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition said 14 of 15 unions approved the deal, which calls for changes to the workers' health and retirement benefits as well as wage-related concessions. At least eight unions needed to vote in favor of the plan; the 15th union, which represents the state police, is scheduled to finish voting Friday.

Malloy said his administration would "move mountains" to withdraw the layoff notices quickly. In a letter asking him to do so, the coalition leaders also called for the governor to move forward with his promises to reduce excessive management and implement union members' budget savings ideas.

"Today marks a victory for those who believe in the middle class and believe that working families should have good jobs with good benefits and a voice at work," said Kathy Fischer, the associate director of the University of Connecticut Women's Center, at a news conference inside a packed Hartford union hall.

It marked the second attempt to approve a deal that Malloy has been counting on to generate $1.6 billion in savings to help balance the two-year, $40.1 billion state budget and create much-needed, long-term savings by reducing workers' health care and retirement costs. The failure of a first vote by unionized workers in June was an embarrassment for the first-term Democrat, who has prided himself on being more pro-union than some Republican governors across the country.

Malloy's popularity among Connecticut voters has suffered as he has worked to tackle the state's budget deficit with a "shared sacrifice" approach of union concessions, budget cuts and wide-ranging tax increases. But he proudly said on Thursday that the deal showed what is possible when "management and labor work together in a respectful fashion."

"We have achieved something the skeptics said was unachievable: we've made the relationship between the state and its work force sustainable. And, unlike in most other states, we did it without going to war with public employees," Malloy said.

Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton, said she remains skeptical about whether there has truly been a shared sacrifice and questioned "what kind of achievement" the union deal is for taxpayers.

"They see it as having to give up a great deal, whereas the folks in the unions are just getting more job security and not a penny less on their salaries," Lavielle said.

After the first union vote failed, Malloy called for 6,500 job cuts, including layoffs and not filling open positions. As of last week, he had issued about 3,000 layoff notices and recommended deep spending cuts to the General Assembly to balance the budget. Some state employees who opposed the deal complained that Malloy and union leadership were using the layoffs as a fear tactic to get the agreement ratified.

Union leaders said the health and retirement changes passed on a 25,713 to 9,291 vote, while the wage-related changes passed 25,759 to 7,928.

Even though leaders of the union coalition decided to change their rules following the defeat in June – requiring at least eight of the 15 unions to approve changes to a coveted 20-year health and retirement benefits package, instead of 14 of 15 – the deal would have passed under the old rules. In June, 11 of the 15 unions voted for the agreement.

This time, only one bargaining unit, which represents prison supervisors, has so far rejected the health and retirement changes, as well as the two-year wage freeze. Those employees won't be eligible for Malloy's promise of no layoffs for four years in return for ratification of the agreement. When asked if those workers, or the state police if they vote no, are at risk of layoffs, Malloy said, "We'll deal with whatever the realities are."

Ron McLellan is president of the Connecticut Employees Union Independent, which represents workers ranging from custodians to highway maintainers who voted against the deal the first time. He said union leaders were fortunate to get a second chance to ratify the agreement.

"You can always look in hindsight and say, `Could you have done things better?' And we certainly did that," McLellan said.

This time, he said union leaders had more time to have individual conversations with members to explain the complex agreement. Also, he said union leaders got the chance to clear up some misperceptions about the deal, such as whether a new health care and wellness initiative for state workers was actually a universal health care system known as SustiNet, but in disguise.

Additionally, union leaders said their members were motivated by the desire to help their colleagues keep their jobs and to make sure key state services were protected.

The deal includes a two-year wage freeze, followed by 3 percent pay raises and changes to health and retirement benefits. As part of the wage freeze, workers will give up raises of 2.5 percent to 3.5 percent that took effect last month after the first deal wasn't ratified. The years of service required for retirements after July 1, 2022 are increased, as well as the years of service required to receive retiree health benefits. There will also be mandatory contributions to the retiree health care account.

For people hired after July 1, they face increased years of service and age to be eligible for retirement, and to receive retiree health benefits.

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Associated Press Writer Stephen Dockery contributed to this report.

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Follow Associated Press writer Susan Haigh on Twitter at _ http://twitter.com/SusanHaighAP

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Filed by Paige Lavender  |