Amid the shouts of “solidarity” and “the unions forever,” hundreds of unionized workers and supporters gathered on the steps of the state Capitol in Hartford Wednesday to show support for workers in Wisconsin and other states where legislation could soon diminish the rights and power of unions.
“What happens in Wisconsin could happen anywhere,” said Michael Osieck, a Middletown firefighter and vice-president of South Fire District International Association of Fire Fighters Local 3918, on the steps of the Capitol Wednesday. “We’re fortunate enough that we have labor laws in this state, but they can be taken away. These legislators, you never know what they are going to do.”
According to union organizers, Wednesday’s rally was a direct response to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s attempt to push legislation through the Wisconsin statehouse that would strip the state’s unions of the ability to collectively bargain for wages and benefits in the future. Newly elected Republican governors in Wisconsin and Indiana, and several other states, also appear to be eyeing similar legislation to curtail union rights and bargaining power.
As states throughout the country battle large deficits and high unemployment numbers, the blame for these shortfalls has been heaped on the unions, particularly public sector employees and the “cushy” benefit packages and guaranteed wage increases their detractors claim they receive each year.
“What’s happening in Wisconsin is terrible, and it’s happening in too many forums across the country,” said Larry Dorman, a spokesman for Council 4 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), one of the largest public sector employee unions in the country. Dorman was one of the organizers of Wednesday’s rally.
“Too many politicians are attacking and assaulting middle class workers to push their agendas for the corporations and the super-rich. We also want people to understand that driving down the middle class and destroying the middle class isn’t the answer to getting this economy moving forward,” Dorman said.
More than a few speakers pointed out Wednesday that Wisconsin was the birthplace of AFSCME about 75 years ago.
Dan Kelly, a corrections officer from Pawcatuck, said he brought his son R.J. to the rally to “teach him what unions have done for America.”
“Employees have rights, and we fought hard for them,” Kelly said. “At one time probably he doesn’t know it, but kids his age worked in the mills, and the unions helped fight for that so that kids his age didn’t have to do that.”
Many politicians stood beside the protesters or spoke as part of the rally, mainly Democrats like State Rep. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, or former Secretary of the State and current U.S. Senate candidate Susan Bysiewicz. The most unexpected appearance of the day was that of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who was not on the original list of speakers but kicked off the rally with a few brief comments.
“There’s no doubt that a lot of people are having tough times when you have a 9.4 percent unemployment rate in the nation,” Malloy told the crowd. “When people are losing their work and jobs are moving out and that sort of thing, it’s tough times. And it reflects itself in state budgets, and city budgets and all the rest. But there is no reason for a full assault on the right to organize, the right to negotiate, the right to arbitrate.”
Colleen Flanagan, a spokesperson for Malloy, told Patch later in the day that the governor was a “firm supporter” of unions and that Malloy’s mother once belonged to one.
But contrary to Malloy’s remarks at the rally, Connecticut could soon be bracing for its own union battle. In his proposed for the state, Malloy is hoping to recoup $1 billion in savings and reductions from unionized state employees already under contract in each year.
When asked specifically about Malloy’s budget proposal and the union givebacks it calls for, Sal Luciano, executive director of Council 4 AFSCME, said he thought the “math was a little difficult.”
“It’s $2 billion cut divided by 40,000 unionized state employees,” Luciano said. “That’s $50,000 (each), so the math is a little difficult is what I think.”