CT legislature OKs pay for striking workers; Republicans call it ‘trickery’ and ‘absurd’ | Hartford Courant

May 9, 2024

From the Hartford Courant:


In a huge win for labor advocates, a proposal to compensate striking workers for lost wages passed the Senate Wednesday night with just nine minutes left on the clock of the 2024 session.

The measure, which was a high priority for organized labor and Democrats who have supported each other for decades, was attacked by Senate Republicans as “trickery” due to the fact that the bill makes no explicit mention of strikes or labor disputes.

The bill’s vague language grants Comptroller Sean Scanlon broad discretion to develop criteria for the implementation of a $3 million “Connecticut families and workers account” designed “for the purposes of assisting low-income workers.”

After 40 minutes of discussion, the bill passed in a 23 to 12 vote that fell on party lines.

“No one undertakes a strike lightly. It is always a financial struggle for families,” Senate President Pro-Tempore Martin Looney said as he recalled the stress and anxiety his family incurred when his own father went on strike. “This now provides at least some partial safety net.”

Towing the line between pro-labor and pro-business concerns, Gov. Ned Lamont has remained skeptical ofbut open to, extending benefits to striking workers.

The concept, which union advocates have pushed for years as critical to protect the livelihood of striking workers, was decried by business advocates who say state compensation will encourage strikes and disrupt the economy.

Within minutes of the bill’s passage Sen. Republican Leader Stephen Harding, Sen. Rob Sampson and Sen. Eric Berthel released a joint statement urging the governor to veto the legislation “as soon as it hits his desk.”

“Democrats just voted for one of the most absurd bills we have ever seen,” the senators said. “It had no public hearing. It had no definitions. It creates a slush fund for the State Comptroller. It is all about trickery and that is insulting to Connecticut taxpayers. This brazen bill epitomizes the arrogance of Democrats who control all the levers of power in Connecticut. It’s more fiscal mismanagement and another attempt to go around the fiscal guardrails.”

In a report by the Connecticut Mirror House Speaker Matt Ritter described the bill as a compromise between Lamont and labor advocates, who eyed House Bill 5164 as a top priority for the 2024 session. The original proposal would have made workers eligible for unemployment benefits after 14 days on strike, starting Dec. 14, 2025. Under the bill, the Connecticut Department of Labor would run the program through the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund.

Cloaked in ambiguity and non-specifics, the controversial proposal cleared the House in a 90-59 vote Friday, after mere minutes of discussion that neglected to include even an utterance of the word “strike.”

When grilled by Republicans on the true intent of the bill Wednesday, Labor Committee Chair Sen. Julie Kushner adhered to the bill’s language, saying the “Comptroller will determine how to use the fund,” which she said will “assist low income workers.”

As debate closed, it was Looney who finally said “Clearly ‘low income working people’ would include potentially striking workers.”

“It is good. It is humane. It is something that recognizes that workers who are undertaking a strike because negotiations have failed often because stonewalling has occurred by employers,” Looney said. “This now provides at least some partial safety net, in those circumstances, potentially as an eligible use of this fund.”

Only two states, New York and New Jersey offer unemployment benefits to striking workers. In both states, workers become eligible after 14 days of strike.

Connecticut’s proposal received staunch opposition from business advocates, including the Connecticut Business and Industry Association.

On Monday the CBIA published a letter by the RTX Corporation, the owners of Pratt and Whitney and Collins Aerospace, that urged state senators to oppose H.B. 5431.

RTX, which employs over more than 16,500 workers in Connecticut, said the proposal would “erode Connecticut’s business climate, rendering other states more viable options for future work.”

RTX said that strikes are “relatively rare” under the current framework because when “Employees collectively leverage the right to withhold their labor to secure better agreements…It is balanced by the personal economic loss of a strike.”

“State-funded compensation would significantly skew the careful balance intended under the National Labor Relations Act,”  RTX Said. “Paying people to strike would serve only to increase the frequency and duration of work stoppages in Connecticut. Such a significant skewing of the negotiating parties’ leverages could yield unsustainable labor contracts for Connecticut manufacturers.”

Labor advocates argue that the legislation will not lead to an increase in strikes, but will encourage employers to foster good-faith negotiations.

“Workers attempting to form a union and negotiate a fair contract face significant power imbalances and obstacles,” Ed Hawthorne, the president of the Connecticut branch of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, said in testimony presented to the labor committee in February.

By compensating striking workers, Hawthorne said the state “will incentivize employers to act in good faith and ensure workers have a fair opportunity to provide for themselves and their families.”

Hawthorne said that since 2021, 18 strikes have occurred in Connecticut and “only four lasted longer than two weeks.”

“Voting to authorize a strike is one of the most difficult and traumatic experiences a worker and their colleagues can face,” Hawthorne said. “They risk losing their income, their jobs if replacement workers are hired, and employer retaliation. But many believe the alternative – the chance to achieve long-term improvements in pay, benefits and working conditions – is worth the risk. At that point, it’s not really a choice.”

“When striking workers can pay the rent and afford groceries, it creates a safety net for their families, small businesses, and entire communities,” Hawthorne said.