NEW HAVEN, Conn. – Braving frigid cold winds, staff members and patients at the Connecticut Mental Health Center (CMHC) spent their lunch hour on the picket line, Feb. 3, wearing District 1199 signs proclaiming “Patient Care is OUR bottom line.”

CMHC is one of dozens of social service agencies decimated by new program cuts and layoffs of 3800 state workers in the wake of a $650 million budget deficit. Rallies to protest the unnecessary and brutal cuts are being held around the state daily.

Candace Buchanan, a clinical social worker with 13 years seniority, decried the loss of intake staff at CMHC, which could dangerously delay critical help. “I’m appealing to people’s moral conscience … Do not allow Gov. Rowland to balance the budget on the backs of those in need,” she said, calling for a fair tax policy. “Those who benefitted in time of economic prosperity should now share the responsibility to balance the budget.”

Republican Governor John Rowland justifies his callous cuts, from services for the blind to health care for children, by blaming union workers and the poor. The slogan on Connecticut Business and Industry Association billboards, “Cut spending – tax increases mean less jobs,” make it clear that protecting the rich and corporations takes priority over meeting human needs.

In an unprecedented response, the 13 unions representing state workers (SEBAC) joined with 100 social service organizations (One Connecticut) and big city mayors to present an alternative Fair Share Budget to the Democratic-controlled legislature. Their proposal restores all cuts in services and rehires laid-off workers. It closes the deficit with a modest, graduated income tax increase for those with $200,000 or more annual income.

Rejecting structural cuts in wages and benefits, state workers offered to save the state $1.1 billion with wage increase postponements and deferred pension fund contributions. Rowland dismissed the proposals out-of-hand.

The Fair Share budget, originally embraced by a third of House Democrats, remains stalled under pressures against taxing the rich and re-hiring laid-off workers.

Determined to spotlight denial of basic human rights, seven activists staged a sit-in at the governor’s office during late night budget deliberations.

Rowland’s divisive tactics have included a direct e-mail appeal, calling on state employees to reject their union leadership and agree to concessions in exchange for ending the layoffs.

Understanding that Rowland would like to eliminate their unions, state workers are voting instead to increase dues payments to provide support for their wrongfully laid off sisters and brothers. Over 300 stewards and delegates from the 13 unions held their first joint meeting February 8, to plan full involvement of their members. Rowland “counted on 13 unions breaking apart and each going its own way … That hasn’t happened,” said Dan Livingston, attorney and SEBAC chief negotiator.

SEBAC has filed suit in federal court to reinstate all laid-off employees, charging that the governor is targeting members of unions who opposed him in the 2002 elections.

Rowland exposed his anti-union bias in a 1997 interview saying, “I think in politics, there are some natural enemies and natural friends. In my case, the natural allies have been the business community, the natural enemies have been the unions.”

The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities has also sued Rowland for aid due to cities and towns. New Haven Mayor John DeStefano is lobbying daily at the capitol. As president of the National League of Cities (NLC), he knows these battles are being fought in nearly every state. The NLC federal stimulus proposal calls for $70 billion to meet state and local budget shortfalls.

The impact of the cuts is life threatening. Last week a Meriden resident was rushed to the emergency room after failing to get his prescription renewed at the closed Department of Social Services office. Four DSS offices, four labor employment centers and five motor vehicle offices are closing, leaving many in the lurch.

On the picket line at CMHC, Candace Buchanan said, “No one can predict what this will look like when it is all over.” Calling the cuts “madness,” she said patients at the Hispanic mental health satellite clinic are forced to speak through interpreters since two Spanish-speaking social workers were bumped in the layoff process.

On Feb. 27, thousands of ordinary citizens and state workers will stand together at the State Capitol to counter Rowland’s budget address and “turn up the heat … to reverse the layoffs and win a fair solution to the budget crisis.”

Many workers are also participating in actions against a war on Iraq.

The author can be reached at joelle.fishman@pobox.com

PDF version of ‘Conn. labor says ‘Human needs first’’

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