Globe Editorial

Conn. unions tempt worse fate in refusing modest savings deal

June 29, 2011

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IN A season of confrontations between state governments and their public-employee unions, the deal cut by Connecticut’s pro-labor governor, Dannel Malloy, and a group of 15 state unions was a model of cooperation. That is, until the membership failed to approve it last week, in a truly startling display of selfishness.

This was no Draconian giveback. No one’s pay would be cut. There would be no raises for two years, followed by solid 3 percent hikes for three consecutive years. There were also modest cost-savings adjustments on pensions and health care, similar to some that have been enacted in Massachusetts. In return, however, the Connecticut government promised no layoffs for at least four years.

The no-layoff provision was key, because government job cuts have been dragging down the economy almost everywhere. At a time when the private sector is showing some signs of job creation, state governments, facing the loss of federal stimulus funds, have been dropping jobs like huskies shedding in the summer heat. These cuts only exacerbate the downward pressure on the economy. Fear of layoffs makes consumers stop spending, thereby hurting small businesses and obliging them to cut more jobs. Connecticut, at least, seemed poised to avoid this catastrophe.

Now, as he said he would, Malloy has begun alerting 7,500 workers that their jobs are going to be terminated. The taxpayers are double losers: They’re getting reduced state services without any corresponding tax cut.

So why did the unions vote down a reasonable deal that their leaders endorsed? Actually, 13 of the 15 unions opted in favor of the deal, but two — including a giant American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees unit that covers a third of all unionized state employees — did not. And the approval process required that at least 14 unions be on board. According to news reports, some AFSCME members feared more onerous health-insurance changes than were actually in the deal. There’s already talk of trying to revive it, with just enough tweaks to reassure the doubters on health care.

That would be a step forward. Otherwise, the legacy of all of the good work by Malloy, the Connecticut legislature, and union leaders will come to naught. And people elsewhere will simply assume that whenever a reasonable deal is put forward, enough union workers, insulated by seniority provisions and unconcerned about junior colleagues facing layoffs, will put every hard-won perk ahead of the greater good of the union, the government, and the state economy. And there will be tougher action to come.