Connecticut State Workers Earn Big Court

 

HARTFORD, Conn.—Thousands of Connecticut state workers and their union coalition racked up a big win in federal appeals court on May 31 against their firing a decade ago by former GOP Gov. John Rowland, who later was jailed for fraud.

A 3-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled that Rowland illegally fired 3,000 state workers in 2003 solely because they were union members, and not to help eliminate the state’s budget deficit, as he claimed then. And that firing of unionists violates the workers’ 1st Amendment rights of free speech and free association, Appellate Judge Gerald Lynch wrote.

The ruling is important because some federal judges, and sometimes the U.S. Supreme Court, have limited the free speech rights of state government workers. But speaking freely by joining the union and by the union defending its members is another matter, the Lynch’s decision said.

The case involved bargaining pitting Rowland and his top officials against the 13-union coalition – including AFSCME, the Fire Fighters, SEIU, the state AFL-CIO, the School Administrators and the Teachers – over a new contract covering 50,000 state workers, three-fourths of whom were union members.

In late 2002, Rowland demanded $450 million in health care and pension concessions from the coalition. He said if he didn’t get them, he would fire 3,000 workers. The unions rejected his plan, stand put a counter-offer – which would have saved the state more money – on the table. Rowland went ahead with the firings in early 2003. He fired only unionists, adding he would reverse the firings if the union coalition gave in.

A federal district court judge in Hartford backed Rowland, but the circuit court judges, sitting in New York City, said the lower court judge was completely wrong.

“The right to free association is a right closely allied to freedom of speech and a right which, like free speech, lies at the foundation of a free society,” the appeals court ruling says. “The public employee surely can associate and speak freely and petition openly, and he is protected by the 1st Amendment from retaliation for doing so.”

“Included in this right to free association is the right of employees to associate in

unions…The 1st Amendment does not impose an affirmative obligation on government to recognize and bargain with a union, but that reasoning might be different if government had taken steps to prohibit or discourage union membership or association,” the ruling adds. That’s what Rowland’s firings did, the judges said.

“The U.S. Supreme Court was concerned that the government would wield its power to interfere with its employees’ freedom to believe and associate,” if it let governments fire workers for their political party affiliations, political beliefs, or both, the appeals court pointed out.

“Conditioning public employment on the provision of support for the favored political party ‘unquestionably inhibits protected belief and association. Conditioning public employment on union membership, no less than on political association, inhibits protected association and interferes with government employees’ freedom to associate. It…may be done only in the most compelling circumstances.”

The appellate judges did not define “compelling circumstances,” but referred back to U.S. Supreme Court cases that did.

 

-PAI