Ryan Holeywell is a staff writer at GOVERNING.E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
In terms of union negotiations, Connecticut had positioned itself as a sort of anti-Wisconsin. With Democrats controlling the state Senate, House and governor’s office, union leaders negotiated a pretty good deal with Gov. Dannel Malloy. In exchange for accepting $1.6 billion in concessions like wage freezes and an increased retirement age, unions got a guarantee of no layoffs for at least four years. The compromise was struck calmly and quietly, with none of the employee protests or statehouse sit-ins that other states have seen.
When union leaders took the deal to members, though, they were shocked to see it voted down. What went wrong? Sure, some members were wary of changes to their health plan, and some didn’t want their retirement age to increase.
But union officials pinned most of the blame on the Yankee Institute for Public Policy, a conservative Connecticut organization they say poisoned the debate by intentionally spreading misinformation and prompting workers to vote against their own best interests. The unions’ umbrella group, the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition (SEBAC), says the Yankee Institute used fake names to access the state e-mail system, then sent false information to employees, all while posing as their colleagues. “There’s no question it was a factor,” SEBAC spokesman Matt O’Connor says. “They were … masquerading as someone they weren’t.”
That’s not how the state’s attorney general saw it. An investigation revealed no wrongdoing by the Yankee Institute or anybody else. State e-mail wasn’t hacked; its security features weren’t compromised. Some employees had simply received e-mails from Yahoo accounts originating outside the state system.
In fact, the only wrongdoing may have been by state workers themselves, some of whom used state computers to broadcast their opinions of the deal -- violating official e-mail policy.
The lesson in all of this is the incredible impact electronic communication can have on a debate, since it ultimately resulted in workers rejecting a deal that was pretty good for them. Meanwhile, the Yankee Institute says it’s become a scapegoat for union leaders who couldn’t get the job done. “We had nothing to do with it,” says Executive Director Fergus Cullen. But the organization has been clear about its opposition to the benefits enjoyed by unionized state workers.
In response to the e-mail kerfuffle, the group called union leaders “paranoid” and suggested they “cool off with a tall glass of lemonade and some time in the shade.” Now that they believe they were defamed, the Yankee Institute says it’s reviewing its legal options. Meanwhile, the unions approved a revised deal in a follow-up vote last month.