At last night’s gubernatorial debate, the issue of potential layoffs of state union workers was a hot topic of conversation.  (See CT News Junkie for a more detailed report.) Each candidate indicated that layoffs weren’t ruled out if elected.  

That’s all very well and good, but none of them have mentioned how a prior layoff (from a governor who allegedly tried to seek long-term concessions from the unions) has led to a seven-and-a-half year battle between the state (actually, the governor & the chief of the office of policy and management) and State Employee Bargaining Agent Coalition (SEBAC). And the outcome of that case is likely to determine the path that the next governor will be able to take under similar financial circumstances. 

What’s that case about?  It has a long and tortured history, but each side has now filed motions for summary judgment (in whole or in part) that try to summarize it.  According to the unions (the summary judgment memo can be downloaded here):

The case involves the constitutionality of an attempt by Connecticut’s former Governor to compel the plaintiff unions to grant long-term concessions to their legislatively-approved collective bargaining agreements by threaten to terminate the employment of union members if the concessions were not granted and by implementing the terminations, through layoffs of 2800 union employees, when the unions refused to agree to all of the demanded contract modifications.

Defendants assert that it is constitutionally permissible for them to terminate union employment in an effort to compel demanded concessions.  Defendants further contend that in making state work force determinations, it is constitutionally permissible for them to single out union employees for layoff.  Plaintiffs submit that such conduct violates their First Amendment right to freedom of association; impermissibly conditions their right to continued public employment on giving up protected First Amendment and Contracts Clause rights; and subjects them to adverse state action based on an arbitrary and impermissible classification, in violation of the Equal Protection Clause.  

According to the state (summary judgment memo available here):

"The First Amendment is not a substitute for the national labor relations laws…(citation omitted) Notwithstanding the Supreme Court’s admonition, the Plaintiffs … seek to transform a labor dispute with the State of Connecticut (the "State") into a First Amendment "retaliation" case.  The labor dispute arose amidst a major budget crisis in 2002-2003, when the State sought concessions from the Plaintiffs. When the Plaintiffs refused to agree to the State’s demands, the state laid off approximately 2800 state employees.  …

[M]assive budget deficits have forced the State’s governors to make extraordinarily difficult decisions about the size and cost of the State work force as part of their constitutional obligation…[T]he Court should reject the Plaintiff’s attempt to ‘constitutionalize’ their labor dispute with the State.  

(Full disclosure: For 2003-2005, I was part of a team of attorneys on this matter representing the state while I was at a prior law firm.)

Just two weeks ago, each party filed briefs opposing the others’ summary judgment motions. The union’s memo is available here, while the state’s is available here.  

Notably, a decision is not expected in that case until well after the November elections. But one thing is for sure: The outcome of the case may dictate how much (or little) flexibility the next governor will have on layoffs. Indeed, ironically, the new governor will have to deal with any fallout from the years-old lawsuit.

In any event, the case should serve as a cautionary tale. Even the layoffs that do occur can lead to years of litigation and no assurances of the end result. It’s something that the candidates should keep in mind as they devise their strategies for balancing the budget.