Labor's uneasy dance with Dan Malloy
HARTFORD -- They joke on the eve of Mark Ojakian's first meeting with the unions. He is off to meet the representatives of more than 45,000 state workers, many of whom had helped to push Dan Malloy into office in the first place. Now Malloy is management, and they are bound to clash.
"I rehearsed all night, as the snow was falling," Ojakian says wryly one day, as the advisers gather on chairs and couches in Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman's third-floor office. Outside, snow has indeed been falling since midnight and lies a few inches deep across the grassy grounds of the Capitol. The prospect of O.J. visiting SEBAC, the union coalition, brings "The Godfather" to mind.
"Are you going to a small Italian place in Jersey?" senior adviser Roy Occhiogrosso asks.
"See if the troopers have any Kevlar," says Andrew McDonald, the governor's legal counsel.
"Sit with your back to the wall!" Wyman calls.
Budget director Ben Barnes focuses on what O.J. already knows. Amid the pleasantries, this was the moment for an opening bid, a strong first bet that would dictate how their negotiations would unspool over the next half-year.
You can "put a number on the table," Barnes tells him, "an aspirational number." But, he adds quickly, "Don't call it that."
Ojakian did throw out a number -- $1 billion per year in givebacks -- not that it seemed to sink in. As spring slid onward and the focus of the administration turned to the legislative calendar, O.J. would return, in meeting after meeting, to give updates on the talks with unions.
Yes, he and Linda Yelmini, the state's veteran labor issues attorney, were sitting patiently through presentations on the unions' suggestions for improving efficiency and cutting spending. (First step, usually: Fire some managers.)
Yes, they were pushing the unions to accept that their billion-dollar ask was real.
And they were hearing all the same rumors. Despite Malloy's unequivocal public denials, some workers thought he'd offer a buyout to workers near retirement, as Jodi Rell and John Rowland had. Some unions were simply too frosted by what they viewed as the bad deals of the past to even consider concessions now, especially the state police, who gave in to Rell's wage concessions two years earlier, only to watch corrections officers flaunt the pay freeze and not suffer any layoffs as a consequence.
Now, having helped elect Malloy, the candidate many of those unions had worked successfully to defeat in a 2006 gubernatorial primary -- in part because of doubts about his commitment to labor -- some complained of a double-switch. They'd conceded in the past. They would concede no more.
And yet here was Dan Malloy, on MSNBC in February, scolding host Joe Scarborough for "demonizing unions." The same "Corporate Dan" -- who liberal and labor antagonists grumbled about -- would side with the building trades on major spending projects, like the proposed busway connecting Hartford, West Hartford and New Britain.
How to reconcile the two? The first Democratic governor in Connecticut in a generation would be the one to issue more layoff notices to unionized state workers than any governor in memory. He would also be the first, as Malloy proudly notes at every opportunity, to pay the full, recommended amount from the state's treasury into the pension funds for active and retired workers. And he and his staff would say, as their first year wound to a close, that they had taken the initial step in a journey to make government and its missions sustainable and permanent.
But first they would have to clash, bitterly if privately, over the meaning of being pro-labor and the true definition of a Democrat.
The two Dan Malloys
"Does he remember that I'm the f-----g governor?!"
Dan Malloy hisses this to Roy Occhiogrosso in his office, after playing his adviser the voicemail from Ray Soucy. Soucy is a gruff officer of one of the correction officers unions, easily affronted, and the little wave and smile that his table received from Malloy at the Jefferson Jackson Bailey Dinner is not sitting well with him. Too good to come over and visit them? That was not good, Soucy informs the governor. That will not be helpful when it comes to ratifying any labor deals. You do not, as it were, put the corrections officers in a corner.
This stuff makes Malloy want to spit. The presumed security of the status quo, Soucy's damned certainty that he can play his hand just as strong against Dan Malloy as he did against Rell, or Rowland. It hints at a fallibility Malloy can't abide. It suggests he doesn't hold all the trump cards, when that has been the point, the whole time. Getting to hold the trumps.
From the start, some of the problem is personality. What do you expect? The man's a mayor. He's a Democrat on Tuesday, but all week long he's management. Malloy's been on labor's side, in campaigns and on pickets, but he's been the boss, too, the one who wouldn't let them wrap OT into their pension calculations in Stamford, who turned back any number of attempts to squeeze an extra dollar from the city.
That was part of the problem in 2006. The unions didn't just line up with (New Haven Mayor John) DeStefano in the primary; they kicked the hell out of Dan Malloy. (Do you think he's forgotten this? Do you think he doesn't remember this at every moment, even when he's the governor at last, riding in an elevator on the way up to the ballroom of the Hartford Hilton for the UAW's annual Civil Rights Dinner? That one of the evening's hosts is the same Phil Wheeler who told the Hartford Courant four years earlier that Malloy was an enemy of the working man? He has not forgotten.)
Through the spring, defending his budget, he tries to hit the unions, but fairly, within the rules of their contest. They slam him in the town halls for not raising taxes, and he gives it right back: The rich saw their taxes go up under Rell, just a year ago. They want to solve the problem with a moon shot at the upper class, but he wants sacrifice to be shared. It grinds away at the people who think he's perpetuating unfairness, but Malloy aides believe it helps with the very voters -- those flinty independents -- most skeptical of Malloy, and of the Democrats.
All the while, tooth by groaningly pulled tooth, O.J. is getting closer to a deal.
The rest of the Malloy team joke every time O.J. enters an update meeting, checking him for bullet holes, evaluating the relative exhaustion lined across his face. Ojakian is never less than pulled together: pinstriped suits, French cuffs, bright ties knotted in full Windsors, suit jacket buttoned until the moment he releases it in the same motion in which he sets down his folio and papers with a dramatic sigh. You would not believe what he has been putting up with over there.
But he's getting closer. It started in January, hearing out the early rounds of union suggestions for cost-savings, urging Dan Livingston, the unions' chief negotiator, to take the administration's concessions target seriously, and occasionally teetering along the edge of dissolution.
Once, in April, the group resolves to blow it up. The governor, O.J., Nancy, Andrew. Go in there and just tell them to take it or leave it, that's it. But the order to fire that missile is never given, and at last they pull back. The talks can be saved. They're getting there. Slowly it forms: the creation of a new tier of state workers, the new hires who will pay a percentage of their future pension costs, a new program for the unions to get workers into preventive health plans, and, in exchange, a no-layoff guarantee for four years.
`scared to death'
The governor has an edge today. It is May 11, a Wednesday.
Malloy is in the South End of Stamford when Barnes calls, walking amid just-laid carpeting and skeletal metal beams in what will be the trading floor of Louis Dreyfus Highbridge, an energy firm. As the project's developer, Carl Keuhner, waits, Malloy moves off into the distance, out of earshot. He paces, framed in the refracted light of dusty windows looking out across the railroad embankment, toward his city. Back in the car, he calls Cathy. "I think we might finally be close to a deal."
Just after 9 p.m. in Hartford, Tim Bannon and Nancy Wyman sign the visitors' log at the back entrance of the Office of Policy and Management on Capitol Avenue.
Up on the fifth floor, they take seats around the small circular table in Ben Barnes' office to await news. Scattered in front of them on the table are estimates from the actuaries about what their prospective deal might be worth: $1.66 billion over two years, enough to disarm critics who will charge they didn't drive a hard enough bargain, and $22.6 billion over 20 years, enough to claim a permanent change in the escalating imbalance of the state's resources versus its debts.
Barnes, a Dixie cup with a small slosh of bourbon in front of him, gently bemoans that employees outside the direct control of the executive branch will still be able to take home longevity payments, the bonuses workers get for staying in their jobs.
"At some point, I said something about it, and Dan said, `Get real.' "
They're after a deal, not perfection.
All day, the budget chief has "stayed the hell out of the Capitol," and yet rumors abound of an agreement.
Occhiogrosso arrives. "It feels like election night," he exclaims. Unions are "running around telling people there's a deal."
"Then they better f-----g agree!" Barnes replies.
As 10 p.m. approaches, Barnes and Bannon run down the list of where they've given in: extending the existing contract four years, a no-layoff clause, agreed-on future raises.
"These guys are not closers," Barnes says, checking his watch.
"They're also scared to death to take this to their members," Wyman says, with a roll of the eyes.
Malloy calls Occhiogrosso, who reports, putting the phone down again, that the governor is "like a cobra ready to spring."
"He should be here," Wyman says. "He shouldn't be alone."
"Will you think selfishly for once?" Occhiogrosso replies. "Can you imagine if he were here now?"
The governor is not alone. He is heating a frozen pizza in the kitchen at the official residence, with Cathy and Arielle Reich, dishing about Stamford restaurants.
The governor opens a beer just after 10 p.m. when the intercom beeps and a trooper from the bunker downstairs announces, "Tim Bannon on the line for you." He snaps his fingers for the remote to silence MSNBC as he takes the phone with a crust between his fingers.
"OK, so not tonight," Malloy says, facing out the window, next to the stacked crates of cherry tomatoes by the sink, his green tie tucked, protected against pizza, inside his shirt.
"Oh," Cathy exclaims softly.
But his spirits are not crushed. "You know what we can't do, and you've just got to talk 'em off the ledge," he says into the phone, before hanging up.
To his wife and his closest aide, he offers a laugh. O.J. has "the patience of Job," Dan Malloy says. "I would not make a good negotiator."
It's time to sleep.
"I think they tried the bum's rush yesterday, and we didn't bite."
Malloy has had a night to think on it. His negotiator has held firm. They have the upper hand, and will wait to see if the unions can come around or not. The governor is standing in Occhiogrosso's office, too full of energy to sit in one of the chairs by the window. Roy agrees.
"They gambled that they could take their last shovelful of stuff they wanted to do, and we'd say, `F---k it, let's do a deal.' "
O.J. is tired and annoyed, having been accused of trying to "move the goal posts," despite what the administration's members all believe was a final offer that moved toward the union position, with an additional, fourth year of protection from layoffs.
"I moved in their direction and suddenly they can't get a deal done," Malloy says in exasperation, back at his desk, as the group gathers for a budget meeting.
"It's like the Yazoo River," Barnes says, shaking his head. "At some point, it just starts flowing backwards."
They kick around ideas, rejecting each one. No fifth year of the contract extension ("I'm not 25 percent as bad as John Rowland!"), no fourth year of 3 percent raises for workers.
Instead, they send O.J. back to the fray. "Today's the day to get this done," Malloy says.
By late morning on Friday, negotiators are in the "typo phase," hammering out the very last of the agreement, and the governor is on the road. He stops for a business visit to Praxair in North Haven, then joins Wyman for an appearance at an awards ceremony at the State Police Academy in Meriden. The families of the troopers and local police to be honored watch quietly as the notables speak and then leave, working their way out of the hall and through the linoleum hallway, where the officers awaiting their awards wait in a long, single file. Malloy greets them as he moves past, grabbing the hand of Trooper Will Ortiz, a member of his detail, with both of his.
As Malloy and Wyman move past, one trooper stage whispers to his neighbor, "I thanked him for the pink slip."
It's loud enough that Arielle Reich, the governor's aide, hears it and blushes.
"He's going to feel bad later on," she mutters, and smiles.
In the car, zipping back up to Hartford, Malloy attends to other business. He calls Nancy DiNardo, the Democratic Party chairwoman, with a request about seating at the Jefferson-Jackson-Bailey dinner; they've sold 12 more tables for the dinner this year than they did last year, he says brightly. They have just reached the office, at 2:04 p.m., when Bannon walks in, and shakes the governor's hand.
"Congratulations," he says. They have a deal.
As Malloy's aides swarm in, they urge him to stick to the script of their statement. They've abided by the unions' plea to let them explain the terms to the membership, to not let Malloy beat his chest about the concessions he's won.
"Stick to the statement," McDonald says.
"I don't like to read things," Malloy says, grinning, but he does.
All they need now is for the workers to vote yes.
Tomorrow: The unions place Malloy in a vulnerable position.