Carcieri, unions battle on

Layoff announcement is latest salvo in fight

By Mark Arsenault
Globe Correspondent / September 5, 2009

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More than six years ago, Rhode Island’s Republican governor, Donald L. Carcieri, entered his office from the world of big business, calling himself “a friend of labor.’’

But for most of his two terms, the governor and the state employees’ unions have been at each other’s throats. Carcieri has pursued health care and pension reforms to cut costs he says the state can no longer afford. He has pounded the unions from the bully pulpit of conservative-leaning talk radio.

The unions maintain that they have given up enough for the sake of the state’s balance sheet, and they’re fighting back in court and in the court of public opinion by issuing scalding statements to the news media.

Carcieri’s announcement this week that he is preparing layoff notices for 1,000 state workers is the latest thrust in this long-running battle. The layoff threat on Thursday upped the stakes in a dispute over union concessions in a state plagued with high unemployment, declining revenue, and frequent budget crises.

With 7.7 percent of the state’s 13,000 employees poised to lose their jobs, J. Michael Downey, president of the state’s largest public employees union, called yesterday for another round of negotiations “as soon as possible.’’

The governor remains open to an agreement, but “we can’t get blocked at every step,’’ said his spokeswoman, Amy Kempe. “The unions have made this litigious. It does take a while for layoffs, so we have to start the process.’’

Carcieri announced the layoffs after a state Supreme Court justice sided Thursday with state employees’ unions and blocked what was to be the first involuntary state “shutdown day,’’ scheduled for yesterday, to make up part of a $68 million budget shortfall.

The governor has planned 12 shutdown days through the end of the fiscal year, as part of a plan to close a budget gap caused by lower-than-expected state revenues. About 80 percent of the state workforce would stay home and not be paid on the shutdown days, said Gary Sasse, director of the state Department of Administration. Some state functions cannot be fully shut down, such as the State Police and the prisons.

In staying Carcieri’s executive order to impose shutdowns, Supreme Court Justice Maureen McKenna Goldberg working as the duty judge for the full court, ordered both sides to present briefs next week before the full court considers the case on Friday.

Posturing aside, both sides have good reasons to make a compromise before the case gets to the Supreme Court.

Union leaders don’t want their members laid off to join the 70,000 Rhode Islanders already out of work. The state unemployment rate of 12.7 percent is among the worst in the nation.

For Carcieri, shutting down state government would inconvenience thousands of residents. The governor could accomplish the same savings with negotiated furloughs and keep government open. “We had always felt furloughs preferable to shutdown days,’’ said Sasse. The two sides have negotiated over unpaid furloughs but could not reach an agreement.

The union argues that Carcieri does not have the power to unilaterally cut workers’ pay “by locking us out of our jobs,’’ said Downey. The union signed a contract with the governor 14 months ago, he said. The agreement runs through June 2012.

Both sides tried to define the dispute in public comments yesterday.

Downey, head of Council 94 of the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees, said, “The Carcieri administration wants to dictate rather than negotiate.’’ He contended that the governor spends too much time on talk radio and not enough in negotiations. Council 94 represents about 4,000 state workers.

To prevent layoffs, the union is willing to accept some unpaid furloughs, said Downey. “We’ll take these days off, but we want a guarantee that there won’t be layoffs or more furloughs,’’ he said. “We’d like some guarantees that it’s over and that in the next shortfall we’re going to ask everybody in Rhode Island to help out, not just state employees.’’

The union leader blistered Carcieri for announcing the mass layoffs just before Labor Day.

“It shows total disrespect and disregard for the people who do hard work,’’ he said. “There’s people cleaning toilets for the governor this weekend. And on Labor Day weekend he couldn’t say, ’I’m going to take a little pause and we’ll get back to this next Friday when we go to court?’ ’’

Carcieri issued a smoldering statement after Goldberg’s ruling on Thursday, saying the judge “has left me with no option but layoffs.’’ The decision “strips us of reasonable options to manage through this recession.’’

While holding to hope for a negotiated deal with the unions, or a victory in front of the full Supreme Court next week, the Carcieri administration began the layoff process yesterday, said Kempe.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen at the Supreme Court,’’ she said. “Certainly blocking the first shutdown day isn’t a good sign.’’ She said the administration has heard from many rank-and-file state employees who were willing to give up pay to save jobs.

“They understand about the financial situation of the state,’’ she said. “But now the labor leaders are hand slapping and declaring victory [in court] at the expense of a thousand state employees, a thousand of their brothers. That’s absurd to me.’’

The administration yesterday canceled all previous approvals to fill vacant state jobs “regardless of the critical nature of the position.’’

To fill the $68 million budget hole and save slightly more, Sasse explained, Carcieri issued a cost-cutting plan that proposes to take most of the money from state employees and city and town governments:

■$21 million in statewide personnel cuts, primarily from the shutdown days.

■$3 million in savings in employee medical benefits.

■$5 million in reductions to statewide consulting contracts.

■$8.9 million in operation savings, such as cutting travel and printing expenses.

■$32 million in reduced state aid to cities and towns, by eliminating a fourth quarter payment due next year.

The reduction in state aid would require approval by the Legislature, which is unlikely to happen this year. Such a large cut in local aid would generate fierce opposition from municipal officials.

Larry Berman, spokesman for House Speaker William Murphy, said the governor is free to submit the proposal as legislation when the next session of the General Assembly begins in January, and then make a case for the cut within the normal committee process.