The state Senate approved a highly controversial bill late Thursday night that allows the unionization of two groups of low-income workers in a case that has prompted a lawsuit by two legislators against the state.
On a strict party line vote of 22 to 14, the Senate appoved the measure for child care workers and family care attendants. The debate started at about 4:45 p.m. Thursday and lasted for nearly seven hours in the 36-member Senate.
The legislature has battled over the unionization in the past, but Democrats have never been able to turn the bill into law. The difference this time is that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a pro-union governor, signed two executive orders in September 2011 that helped pave the way for the unionization of the workers.
The Senate debated the 16-page, 449-line bill that they said would essentially codify the two executive orders into law. The state House of Representatives had previously voted in favor of the bill in one of the year’s longest debates.
The child-care providers already voted to join the union in December by a vote of 1,603 to 88. The personal-care attendants also voted by 1,228 to 365 to join a union.
Sen. Beth Bye, a West Hartford Democrat, said that the unionization is important because child care workers earn the lowest wages of virtually any industry.
“Let’s get people a living wage,” Bye told her Senate colleagues, adding that the workers are “underpaid and under-appreciated.”
For months, Republicans have blasted Malloy on the issue. Pushing the matter to a head, two Republican state legislators filed a lawsuit in March against Malloy, challenging his executive order. Sen. Joseph Markley of Southington and Rep. Rob Sampson of Wolcott filed the lawsuit with the conservative Yankee Institute of Public Policy to prevent the controversial unionization.
The lawsuit says that only the legislature – not the governor – should have the right to decide the issue. The suit charges that the executive orders violate labor laws at the state and federal level, as well as the state and federal Constitutions. Malloy’s signing of the executive order “is an unconstitutional usurpation of the legislature’s constitutional right to create law and as such is a violation of the separation of powers of the Connecticut Constitution,” the lawsuit states.
On the Senate floor Thursday, Markley said he has been fired up this year about the New Britain-to-Hartford busway, but the unionization issue has come to the fore.
“This is the one that has been most personal to me,” Markley told his colleagues in the circle.
Markley spoke about a 49-year-old Manchester woman – Catherine D. Ludlum – who is confined to a wheelchair and is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Malloy. Ludlum is well-known at the state Capitol and employs 11 attendants who care for her because she suffers from a neuromuscular disease that severely limits her movement. She lives independently – at what she says is a lower cost to the state than if she was living in an institution, Markley said.
“Cathy Ludlum is the most remarkable person I’ve met since I came back to the legislature,” Markley said. “Not only is she not disabled at all, but she is more able and more fully a human being than almost anyone I know. … Cathy came to me, along with her personal care attendants – one by one – to speak to me about this bill. She said ‘neither I, nor my attendants, want to have a union come between me and my attendants.’ She doesn’t see the need to have a union stand between them. … These people have a powerful and beautiful voice.”
Sen. Edith Prague, a liberal Democrat from Columbia, said that she, too, knows Ludlum and described her as a “truly remarkable” person.
“This does not interfere with their right to control their own care,” Prague told Markley on the Senate floor. “It clearly says that the collective bargaining … cannot interfere with the right of a consumer” to hire a personal care attendant. “Also, there is nothing in the bill that says these people have to join the union. If they feel it’s in their own best interest to join … then they would join. They are not state employees.”
Markley, who has known Prague for 25 years, said Prague has “a heart that doesn’t stop.”
Markley, though, noted that Ludlum opposes the bill strongly.
In speaking with reporters, Malloy has repeatedly defended his actions.
“We’re not requiring anyone to be unionized,” Malloy told reporters recently. “We’re requiring that they have the right to unionize if that’s what they choose.”
The legislation at issue was a substitute for House Bill 5312, which is entitled, “An Act Creating A Process For Family Child Care Providers and Personal Care Attendants to Collectively Bargain with the State.”
Sen. Michael McLachlan, a Danbury Republican and former unionized school bus driver, said, “I have yet to talk to one employee who said this is a good idea.”
When McLachlan talked about a family that did not want their attendants unionized, Prague said there was nothing in the bill that would force them to do anything they don’t want to do.
Instead, the workers might get better wages or health benefits, she said.
“Change is the catalyst in the process of growth. We have to be able to grow,” Prague said.
Sen. L. Scott Frantz, a Greenwich Republican, said that legislators must ask themselves: ”If we do this, what’s next and can we afford it?”