Union coalition wins challenge to state employee layoffs

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After nearly a decade, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' opinion invalidating former Connecticut Gov. John Rowland's layoff of nearly 3,000 Connecticut state employees is a tremendous victory for the right of free speech. In response to a suit filed by Connecticut's State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition, the court held that when a governor punishes people because of the group they belong to—whether it's a union, or a political party, or a religion—he or she violates our Constitution's most cherished provisions.

The case is now being remanded to the district court to craft appropriate equitable relief, and to consider the case for damages against the former governor.

The 2nd Circuit Court's opinion shows that Rowland's treatment of public service workers as the enemy has been costly and destructive—to the workers and the vital public services they provide, and to every taxpayer.

"It feels great to be vindicated by the appellate court," says Denise Bouffard, a member of the AFT-affiliated Judicial Professional Employees Union and a plaintiff in the case who was illegally fired by the state in 2003. "I stepped forward because, as a single parent, I wanted to show my daughter that when you believe in something, you have to stand up for what is right."

"When John Rowland laid off nearly 3,000 state workers, it was a mean, vindictive act that was perpetuated by Jodi Rell [Rowland's successor] after Rowland went to prison," says Marcelle Pichanick Groves, another plaintiff in the case. "Rell had many opportunities to make this right and thus mitigate the damages for our state's taxpayers. Instead, she chose to waste millions of taxpayer dollars fighting this lawsuit. I thank the court for upholding the rights of workers."

Groves was working as a management analyst for the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection when Rowland laid off 3,000 state employees, including her. She now works for the state Department of Education and is a member of the AFT-affiliated Administrative and Residual Employees Union local.

Attorney David Golub, who represented the unionized workers, called the court's decision "remarkable."

"It’s an absolute upholding of union members' constitutional rights to belong to a union," he said. "No state can penalize people for belonging to a union. It very clearly holds that what Rowland did was illegal and unconstitutional. People's lives were disrupted in what was an illegal act."

Ultimately, the court's decision is a welcome reminder that in the United States, it's not just the powerful, the rich and the big corporations that have free speech rights. Ordinary Americans, whether they work for the government, private industry or their corner drug store, have rights too. [Eric Excell-Bailey, AFT Connecticut, Associated Press]

June 4, 2013