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Trade union democracy

I’m sure most Connecticut citizens believed that once an agreement was reached between the governor and the state employee unions, a majority would have ratified the generous offer that avoided layoffs, guaranteed jobs and balanced the state budget. That’s understandable. The union’s leaders thought so too. If they hadn’t, they wouldn’t be talking about such drastic measures as a revote or a change in sacred union bylaws. The leaders have even announced they’re going to talk to the membership — a novel approach for them.So what happened? A comfortable majority of thoughtful state employees, 57 percent, who knew a good deal when they saw it, did vote to ratify the agreement.But it wasn’t nearly enough. The old fashioned concept of one man, one vote or one member, one vote doesn’t apply. Trade union democracy, as one union leader described the unions’ complex system, requires 80 percent of the workers to ratify the deal and the vote didn’t even come close. Call it the tyranny of the minority, as dangerous to real democracy as that out of control, 60 percent filibuster in the U.S. Senate. It was Thomas Jefferson who questioned a democracy in which 51 percent could take away the rights of the other 49 percent. What might he have thought of an AFSCME-style democracy which allows a 20 percent minority to take away the rights of an 80 percent majority? There were reports, laughable if not so credible, of workers offended that physical examinations would be required in order to get generous health insurance coverage for themselves and their families into their retirement years. That would be an invasion of their privacy, they whined. Media accounts quoted employees who thought “the rich,” not specifically identified, should bear the deficit burden by themselves and others who were under the illusion that cuts in nonunion management ranks of state workers could resolve all the problems. Sadly, many of the no votes came from older workers who knew their jobs were safe under a system that allows seniority to prevail over everything else. Many of these veteran workers voted no in order to keep the lucrative benefits they were awarded in prosperous times. These “safe” state employees, who have held their jobs for at least 10 years, were happy to sacrifice their colleagues to preserve their sweetheart deals. This should make for wonderful relationships when and if everybody gets back to work at some point in the distant future.It’s clear that the union leadership that negotiated the agreement and then failed to sell it to the membership, or at least to the clueless minority that voted no, must bear the greatest portion of the blame for this tragedy. It is a basic rule in labor management relations that reaching the agreement is only half the job; ratifying the deal is just as vital and that duty falls to the union leadership. And now these out of touch leaders are still trying to blame everyone but themselves.The union leaders’ attempt to scapegoat the Yankee Institute, a conservative think tank, for sabotaging the agreement by sending misinformation to union members is pretty lame. They claim the Institute sent union members emails from a fake state email account of some kind but the charges are so vague, the attorney general chose not to investigate and referred the matter to the state auditors. The Institute has pointed out that one of its affiliates, Yankee Action, has even run ads backing the agreement. That this tiny, right wing outfit could outmaneuver these rich and powerful unions is not something the union leaders should push too far. It makes them look even more impotent. When Winston Churchill remarked that democracy was the worst form of government except for all the others, he hadn’t been introduced to trade union democracy. Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at dahles@hotmail.com.

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