Connecticut march protests austerity budget

April 2016 HartfordBy CHRISTINE MARIE

— HARTFORD — On April 4, nearly 1000 union workers, community organizations, Fight for Fifteen activists, and allies organized as the Democracy, Unity and Equality Coalition marched on the Connecticut state legislature to protest two austerity budgets in front of the representatives.

The first, overwhelmingly approved a few days earlier by a bipartisan coalition with 127 yeas to 16 nays in the House and designed to close the deficit in 2016 state revenue by $220 million, hits the most underserved residents in the state.

The few lawmakers who held out cited the unacceptable cuts to the Department of Women and Children and services to the disabled. The second budget plan, the FY 2017 budget proposed by a darling of the national Democratic Party and the chairman of the Democratic Governors Council, Dannel P. Malloy, proposes over $900 million in cuts and zero increase in taxes on the rich.

At the first of two rallies, Jan Hochdadel, president of the AFT Connecticut, echoed the mantra of the Chicago Teachers Union when she mocked the claim that the state was broke and the budget process broken. “It’s not broke unless they broke it on purpose,” she countered.

Connecticut has the fourth highest median income of any state in country, but the figure is deceptive because it also boasts the highest wealth gap between the 1% and the 99% of state in the nation. Connecticut’s top 1 percent each earned an average of $2.7 million, and between 2009 and 2012 their income grew 35%. The income of the bottom 99%, on the other hand, dropped 5.4%.

These figures hide the darker economic reality in the state’s urban centers, such as Hartford, where official unemployment for African Americans is the highest in the nation.

The refusal of the Democratic and Republican legislators to tax the state’s 1%, as well as some of the most profitable corporations in the country to preserve social services, was pointed out by speaker after speaker.

Brian Becker, a student activist and AAUP supporter from Central Connecticut State University, told the rally-goers, “Governor Malloy had no difficulty giving the war profiteers United Technologies $400 million in tax relief, and their CEO was given a salary of more than $10 million last year. What is there to be said if legislators are not willing to invest in our future, but are willing to protect the privileged few from paying their fair share in the state in which they make their profits?”

The future they envision is clear from the list of proposed cuts. They include reducing monies to orthodontic care to clients under 21, cutting the amount given to those who cannot afford a burial or cremation from $1400 to $1000, significantly dropping the amount given to a children’s hospital highly dependent on Medicaid, dramatically cutting aid to dementia care givers and mammogram support, gutting fire training and environmental initiatives, impoverishing school-based health centers and mental health/substance abuse treatment programs, cuts to asthma treatment and group homes, and so on.

In addition, because the state worker unions bargaining agent (SEBAC) has hesitated to open up the pension and health-care portions of a contract not set to expire until 2022, the governor is threatening up to 5000 layoffs.

“Business demands this,” the governor told reporters, alluding to the repeated demands by the Connecticut Business and Industry Association’s 20×17 plan to “rebalance” Connecticut’s finances and boost the state’s bond rating. In short, business is demanding that the investments of the wealthy in Connecticut bonds be protected by depriving the state’s poorest residents of subsistence services.

The April 4 union rally, which the press characterized as the largest and loudest in many years, raised hopes that the 15 unions that represent state workers will indeed resist the cuts and use the struggle to deepen a coalition of labor and community groups that could mount a real fightback. In 2011, under similar pressure of huge layoffs, the State Employees Bargaining Council, agreed to serious concessions in return for the 2012 contract expiration that the governor and legislature are now trying to reopen.

Because a majority of the SEBAC union rank and file in 2011 refused to agree to the concessions package on the first round, SEBAC illegally changed its bylaws midstream so that affirmation from only eight of the 15 state worker unions were needed to ratify the take-back agreement. Rank-and-file activists who opposed the concessions were told by their union leaders that to defy the Democratic governor would be to put steam in the Koch brothers’ political engine.

The current round of attacks is putting that kind of strategic thinking to the test. Connecticut unionists and community groups may find the confidence to try a more effective response.

Photo: Peter Casolino / Hartford Courant