February 22, 2017 11:55AM
By Mike Savino
HARTFORD — Organized labor converged on the Legislative Office Building on Tuesday to oppose bills its members see as anti-worker and anti-union.
“To have this many bills come before us is shocking and is really going to hurt,” said Southington Fire Capt. Eric Darcy. “It’s going after the middle class in this state.”
The legislature’s Labor and Public Employees Committee held a public hearing on a number of bills, including removing retirement benefits from collective bargaining, change retirement benefits for newly hired municipal employees, and raising the prevailing wage for municipal construction work.
Union employees, both public and private, said the bills are anti-worker and take away benefits that help workers.
“Today at the General Assembly is an historic day, but not in a good way,” said Lori Pelletier, president of AFL-CIO Connecticut.
Proponents of the bills taken up during Tuesday’s hearing, many of which focused on municipal employee benefits, said the changes are needed to help local officials maintain control of their budgets.
“As we all know, our towns and cities have a hard enough time providing essential services to its citizens while keeping costs at a reasonable and affordable level,” said Rep. Fred Camillo, R-Greenwich, in support of excluding retirement benefits from collective bargaining.
Darcy was in Hartford to oppose the same bill, saying it would take away a union’s leverage to ensure pensions are properly funded. He said municipal pension problems are the result of underfunding, much like the issue at the state level.
He also said retirement benefits are needed for firefighters, police officers, and other employees who face physical dangers as part of their occupation.
“We have guys when they retire, they’re not in their best shape,” he said. “They’re hurt, a lot of guys have cancer, so we always try to fight to maintain our benefits because it’s the least we’ve got.”
Proposals subject to Tuesday’s public hearing could also result in other changes to employee benefits, including a cap on wage increases through binding arbitration and prohibiting state employee unions stewards from collecting state pay while conducting union work.
Municipal leaders, meanwhile, made a big push for raising the threshold for prevailing wage and retirement benefit changes for new municipal employees to reflect the most recent tier for state employees.
Municipalities must pay certain hourly rates, which can vary based on the work and location, for projects that exceed certain costs, but local officials said those thresholds are too low because they haven’t been updated in 25 years.
Connecticut Conference of Municipalities lobbyist Daniel C. Giungi said raising the prevailing wage thresholds would allow for “more efficient investments in infrastructure without increased reliance” on revenue.
Giungi also said that establishing a new tier for municipal employees would “enable towns and cities to achieve savings while providing a defined benefit for new employees.”
Other proposed changes include prohibiting arbiters from factoring a municipality’s reserve balance when trying to determine its ability to fund negotiated wage increases.
Union representatives criticized all of the proposals, saying the changes would infringe on their rights to negotiate as collective bargaining units.
House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, backed the unions, saying he doesn’t think the state needs to take away collective bargaining rights in order to achieve affordable personnel costs. Aresimowicz, an education coordinator with AFSCME, also encouraged union employees to stay active in the legislative process.
“I think the unionized workers of the state of Connecticut have to realize that there’s proposals to take away their basic right to collectively bargain, and they need come up here and get involved in the process,” he said. “Otherwise it could be what happened in Wisconsin, where a vote in the middle of the night could take those rights away.”