Published May 02. 2011 4:00AM
Hartford - A crowd of more than 1,000 union members and their families gathered near the state Capitol Sunday to protest what organizers called a growing assault against middle-class workers by Republicans and rapacious corporations.
"There is a class war going on and it's against the middle class - they're trying to exterminate us," said John Olsen, president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO.
The Bushnell Park rally was one of several labor events put on across the country to mark May Day and show a collective front against actions by legislatures in Wisconsin and Ohio to curtail bargaining rights for public-sector employees.
Private and public-sector union members stood together during the hours-long program, which featured speeches by Branford resident Ted Kennedy Jr., U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman and numerous state labor leaders and elected representatives. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy was invited to attend but was out-of-state.
The first-term Democrat governor is on the opposite side of the bargaining table with unions representing more than 40,0000 state employees. The Malloy administration is seeking $1 billion in annual savings and givebacks from state employees to help plug a $3.4 billion budget hole in the next fiscal year.
The first round of layoff notices could be sent out by Friday if an agreement isn't reached.
The Connecticut Laborers' District Council was a lead organizer of Sunday's rally. Charles LeConche, the council's business manager, said the event was not a protest against the governor's concessions request but "what's going on across the nation."
"I've got to thank the Republicans for waking up organized labor," he said. "They got us off our ass and now we're going to rear our ugly heads for them and show them that they're part-time rentals in Washington and in Connecticut and that labor's vote is gonna take them out."
He and others at the rally were still steaming over recent news that Hamilton Sundstrand, a division of United Technologies Corp., will lay off and offer buyout packages to more than 200 machinists in Windsor Locks and outsource positions to Singapore and Poland, where the pay is less.
"Everyone has found a way to try and balance budgets off the backs of workers and increase profits," LeConche said.
While most speakers refrained from mentioning the ongoing labor talks at the Capitol, some rank-and-file union members - private and public sector - shared strong opinions about the governor's $1 billion request.
"It's absolutely horrendous," Susan Silvestor, a food service worker at Wesleyan University and president of Local 217, said of the concessions that would affect her public-sector counterparts. "The problem is not with the union workers."
Her colleague, Sandra Balk, said that her son at the Department of Transportation is nervous about the prospect of cutbacks and layoffs.
"Even though he has 23 years seniority, you never know what's going to happen," she said. "And he has concerns for his fellow brothers and sisters who have less seniority."
James Findley, a state union worker, held aloft a sign asking "Sacrifice Shared by Whom?" The message was a reference to Malloy's calls for "Shared Sacrifice" among Connecticut residents in mending the state's finances.
The 47-year-old Storrs resident said that because the wealthy experienced greater gains than the middle class in recent years, the state needs a more progressive tax structure than what is in Malloy's budget, which would raise the top income tax rate to 6.7 percent.
"He's asking for an extraordinarily large contribution to be made by the unions and I would just like there to be a little more shared sacrifice from those who have benefitted over the past 10 years," he said.
Courtney drew cheers and applause as he relayed last week's announcement that Electric Boat in Groton was awarded $1.2 billion to build a second submarine this year.
"That is a union shipyard with union pipe fitters, with union boilermakers, with union electricians, with union machinists, with union designers, with union engineers," Courtney said.
Ted Kennedy Jr., the son of the late U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, told the crowd that he is proud of his family's long tradition of supporting the causes of working men and women. He called on the nation to put more Americans back to work through investments in infrastructure.
"My family has always stood with you. We're going to be there - standing, working shoulder-to-shoulder - in the future," he said.
Kennedy has repeatedly batted down speculation that he is eyeing elected office, most recently announcing in February that he is not interested in the seat of retiring U.S. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman.
Yet judging from the crowd's reaction on Sunday, a Kennedy name still carries labor support.
"How many of you want to see a Kennedy back in office?" Mike Coyne, international representative for the Iron Workers' union, yelled to the crowd.
The answer was near unanimous applause.
"When he runs, we're all going to support him," Coyne said.