Labor unions, free market spur extended debate in state Senate

Hartford — A minor bill became a multi-hour political debate about organized labor versus free-market capitalism among state senators on Wednesday.

SB 220, introduced by the Labor and Public Employees Committee and co-sponsored by Sen. Martin Looney, D-New Haven, Sen. Dante Bartolomeo, D-Meriden, and Rep. David Kiner, D-Enfield, would require the state Department of Education to include material about labor unions, labor law, free-market capitalism and entrepreneurialism in the curricula available to local school boards.

"We have so many problems, and we spend two hours talking about something that isn't going to solve any of those problems," said Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, toward the end of the debate.

McKinney said senators should have been spending their time discussing the new Common Core education standards, teacher evaluations and how to create more flexibility in the education system.

The education department already offers resources and encouragement to school systems to teach about topics such as the Holocaust, the Great Famine in Ireland and African-American history. Public boards of education are not required to have their public schoolteachers teach these topics, nor would they be required to teach about organized labor and the free market. The bill would, however, require the education department to "encourage" the teaching of these topics as long as there are financial resources to do so.

The nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis said the program would cost less than $20,000 next year for research and development of materials and less than $5,000 the following year for printing and dissemination.

Opponents said curriculum decisions should be left up to local school boards and that the bill would make it harder to bring new business to the state. "Great ideas, good concepts ought to be part of a curriculum," said Sen. Jason Welch, R-Bristol, who voted against the bill. "I think they already are, but I think we really should leave it up to the local towns."

This kind of legislation makes the job of bringing new companies into the state and keeping current companies in Connecticut more difficult, said state Sen. Scott Frantz, who voted against the bill. "I am very concerned about the impression that this bill gives to the rest of the world," he said.

McKinney voted against the bill and said it was mostly a "waste of time."

Not all Republicans agreed.

State Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, voted in favor and said much of society revolves around labor and management. The legislation wouldn't require a school district to teach about labor and capitalism, he added.

Proponents said students should learn about the benefits the country has gained from organized labor such as child labor laws, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards, sexual harassment prevention and whistleblower protection.

"We don't see children going down chimneys … or working in coal mines," said Senate President Pro Tempore Donald Williams, D-Brooklyn. "I don't think there are two sides to that. … I don't think there is someone who wants to speak up against child labor laws. That was progress."

Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, said the legislation wasn't the most important thing they could do, but "I think we need labor history."

"And organized labor built our middle class as well as free market capitalism and entrepreneurialism. … I look at organized labor and businesses as two pieces of a puzzle that don't necessarily work at odds but work in different planes, but need to work together, and this provides them with a mechanism to do so," she said.

The Senate ultimately passed the bill 25-10 with bipartisan support. It now goes to the floor of the House.

j.somers@theday.com

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