Hundreds turn out for labor committee hearing at Middletown city hall [Middletown Press]

February 25, 2015

Article as it appeared in the Middletown Press

MIDDLETOWN >> It may have been cold outside. But passions were aflame inside Middletown City Hall Tuesday, as members of the General Assembly’s Labor and Public Employees Committee took testimony for and against a range of issues.

There were more than 50 proposed bills up for discussion.

But as the committee chairman, Sen. Gary Winfield, D-10, noted, the main arguments focused on two key issues — increasing the thresholds for prevailing wage rates to kick in and imposing limits on unemployment benefits.

Speaker after speaker trailed to the microphone at Common Council chambers to share their opinions, make their points, or to denounce or support proposed legislation for the nine committee members.

Some of the arguments were well-rehearsed, others well-known to committee members, having been presented to the same committee last year during a public hearing in New Britain.

Speakers used the same facts to argue different interpretations and opposing viewpoints before an audience that ranged to upwards of 250 to 300 people when the hearing began at 6 p.m.

Many of the people who made up that audience were large, bulky men — union members from various construction industry trades.

They did not wear their pride on their sleeves, but on their shirts, on oversized patches on the backs of their jackets, or on emblems on their hats.

Because there was an overflow crowds, Capitol police officers herded scores of people from the chambers into the hallway just outside.

Officials from several towns including Leo Paul, first selectman of Litchfield, and Ryan Knapp, a member of Newtown’s Legislative Council, argued the prevailing wage prevents small contractors from bidding on jobs and drives up costs that reduce the scope of municipal projects.

Paul also complained the thresholds for the prevailing wage rates have not been addressed since 1991. Paul said action is long overdue.

Betsy Guerin, executive director of the Council of Small Towns, said continued flat funding of state aid to cities and towns “is creating a lot of pressure on our municipal officials to hold the line on property taxes.”

Knapp said Newtown’s efforts to demolish the former Fairfield Hills State Hospital to “repurpose it for municipal and public use” have been stymied by adherence to the prevailing wages, a policy established by the federal Davis-Bacon Act.

In addition to raising the threshold from $100,000 to $400,000 for small projects, Knapp also asked the committee to exempt volunteer agencies like a fire department from having to pay the prevailing wage if they are building a new fire house.

Knapp also told the committee about a doctor in Newtown who, he said, is donating money to privately finance new sidewalk construction.

That philanthropic gesture should similarly be exempt, Knapp said.

Labor fought back, arguing the facts do not support the contention paying prevailing rates reduces competition or inhibits some construction projects.

One speaker, David A. Roche, president of the Connecticut Building Trades, took on the committee with relish.

Roche, who said he represented 30,000 union and non-union workers, told the committee members, “Nobody in here is making huge money by being in construction,” with its long periods of enforced idleness and no sick time.

“Prevailing wages are the minimum wage for highly skilled construction workers in Connecticut,” Roche said.

“Anyone who proposes to drastically reduce these workers’ wages should remember the record cold and terrible weather of weeks past and thank these workers for their sacrifices during this time,” Roche said.

Roche noted he had said many of the same things a year ago in New Britain.

“You have got to stop picking on the goddamn workers!” Roche thundered.

And then he issued a date-specific warning to the legislators, telling them if, in two years, “you keep attacking us — we’re going to attack you back.”

“We’re not deaf. We do listen,” Rep. Craig Miner, R-66, told Roche.

“Chief elected officers keep coming to us because they think there is something there” in raising the thresholds for the prevailing wages.

“It’s hard to believe there isn’t some way to find common ground,” Miner continued.

Legislators are constantly attacking workers, Roche said, exempting Miner, with whom he is friendly.

When Miner commented on Roche’s ferocity in presenting his point, Roche replied, “It’s called passion. I believe in the workers in this room.”

Without the prevailing wage, there will be “a race to the bottom,” several labor speakers warned, with unscrupulous contractors from out of state bringing in low-wage workers whom they can — and will — exploit.

Ed Reilly, president of the Greater Hartford New Britain Building Council, sounded similar themes.

“What I’m against is exploiting working men and women. What I am against is exploiting working families,” Reilly said.

“What I am for is for a fair day’s pay, for being able to educate your children, to be able to have a roof over your heads, to have money for medicine and food, and to be able to live a decent life,” Reilly said.

“To increase the threshold is just wrong,” Reilly said.

But state Sen. Toni Boucher, R-26, countered Reilly’s dream with her own story as a first-generation American who grew up in the Naugatuck Valley as the daughter of Italian immigrants.

Boucher denounced the prevailing wage rate as an unfunded mandate.

“I’m speaking for the thousands of workers who have been kept from jobs they could have had because of this unfunded mandate,” Boucher said.

”Increasing the threshold would significantly increase the number of public jobs and ease the tax burden,” Boucher said.

Her father, an immigrant who barely spoke any English, “worked three jobs every single day, Boucher said.

“Half the stones walls in Woodbridge were built by my father,” she said, recounting how, as a child, she sat on the sidewalk handing her father his tools.

“Those three jobs put me and my brother through college and graduate school,” Boucher said.

But now, she said, “Connecticut’s in real trouble. We’re one of six states in which more people are moving out than are moving in.

And, Boucher said, Connecticut is saddled with a reputation as being anti-business.

She reached back to the vision of her father building stonewalls as she said, “We have to stop the stonewalling by both sides and come together” to accomplish positive things, Boucher said.

Amanda Flaherty, “a proud ironworker” who opposes increasing the thresholds, shared her story, too.

“We work hard,” she said of herself and her fellow ironworkers.

“We don’t get vacation or sick time. And when the baby is sick, I stay home. No 40 hours there,” Flaherty said.

In addition to debating raising the thresholds for prevailing wage, other speakers addressed proposed legislation that would change unemployment in the state.

Some legislation would establish a waiting period for receiving unemployment benefits, while other proposals would require workers to report to unemployment office in person or establish new regulations supporters say would reduce fraud in obtaining unemployment.

Still other proposals suggested workers contribute to unemployment accounts.

Labor officials and their supporters said many workers who are abruptly laid off live paycheck to paycheck, and even a five-day delay in getting their benefits would be a burden.

As the last speaker of the evening stepped to the podium, legislators could see the goal of adjournment at hand.

But before they got there, Christopher Holland, a union operating engineer, verbally pummeled the committee members.

Holland painted a stark picture of a Connecticut in decline, with dilapidated highway bridges in need of repair and of aging railroads in dire need of improvements.

Holland said he was “sick and tired” of the low and lower middle income residents “being the whipping post” for self-aggrandizing and “grandstanding” legislators.

“You lawmakers waste all sorts of money grandstanding instead of enacting real and meaningful legislation that could help turn the state around.

Instead, Holland said, “the state bleeds the life out of small businesses.”

Responding to holland, Miner said the night’s debate indicated, “There are some significant problems we face.”

“I think we are all struggling to find answers,” Miner said.