Republican amnesia on labor concessions history

Political amnesia seems to have taken hold of the Republican Party in Connecticut, and their forgetfulness is imposing unnecessary strain and strife on Connecticut’s citizens. This amnesia is exemplified in their unanimous objection to approving tens of billions of dollars in union concessions in the recent SEBAC union contract. Only Democrats voted for the concessions, which are essential to arriving at a biennial state budget package sooner rather than later.

What were the Republican objections? They can essentially be boiled down to: the contract was extended, it ties our hands, and we should have saved more.

None of this is true, though it would be easier to endure Republican complaints if they didn’t have a record of taking the exact opposite stance on previous union givebacks, albeit under Republican governors.

For example, in 1997 Gov. John G. Rowland reopened the SEBAC contract to demand $1 billion in concessions. In exchange, Rowland locked in health and pension benefits for 20 years, through 2017. Did Republicans object to that 20-year contract extension? Filibuster on the Senate floor? Hold rallies and town hall meetings? No. They quietly let the agreement become law after 30 days without a vote. After all, it was their own Republican governor who cut the deal.

1997 wasn’t the first or last time a state employee contract would be changed in Connecticut, thereby demolishing Republican claims that once a new deal is approved, we’re locked in forever.

These contracts have been reopened at least five times since the first SEBAC contract was agreed to. In fact, in 1991, the very first SEBAC contract was re-opened halfway through its existence to secure pension changes and wage deferrals. Gov. Rowland re-opened it again in 1997. Gov. M. Jodi Rell reopened the contract in 2009, and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy re-opened SEBAC contracts in 2011 and 2017.

So, history shows, SEBAC contracts do not lock legislatures and governors into fixed costs for decades on end.

Now what about those millions of dollars in extra labor savings that might have been secured, if only the unions would simply roll over and play dead? It’s a tempting scenario to ponder, but it’s not one we’ve seen in the past.

Consider Rell’s 2009 agreement with the state unions, with its one-year wage freeze, seven furlough days and early retirement plan. What goes unmentioned is Rell’s decision to postpone $114 million in state contributions to the retiree pension plan, thereby ratcheting-up future state pension payments, which is what has landed Connecticut in such fiscal hot water.

Were Republicans demanding more then? A better deal? Another plan?

Quite the contrary. In backing Rell’s concession package, Republican Senator Len Fasano, now the Senate leader of his party, proclaimed, “This agreement may not do all that everybody in the circle wants it to do … but that’s called negotiation. That’s what happens. You put the best that you can together and you go forward.” He concluded, “We have much, much more difficult work for this circle to do,” referring to passing a state budget.

Republican amnesia. It’s a terrible thing, especially when the stakes are as high as they are right now, and when the right thing for Republicans to do would have been to review their votes on previous union deals, review the long history of reopening SEBAC contracts, and accept billions in new labor savings. Republicans had done it before. This year, they got willful amnesia and played politics.

Accepting the concessions allows the governor and Democrats to move forward with bilateral budget talks, freeing us from making another $1.5 billion in line-item budget cuts. Voting yes on the concessions package was always the right thing to do, and we should remember that.

State Sen. Cathy Osten represents the 19th District. A Democrat, she lives in Sprague.

 

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