Heading into Labor Day, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy again appointed a union leader as commissioner of the state Department of Labor, naming AFT Connecticut president Sharon Palmer to lead.
Malloy said his administration approached Palmer, who had been a strenuous voice in the debate over education reform this past spring. The AFL-CIO union represents 28,000 teachers, with Palmer herself having taught 20 years in addition to serving as a Waterford town representative. Malloy’s first year in office was marked by a showdown with unions representing state workers, with the governor threatening mass layoffs to extract concessions on benefits in an effort to balance the state budget.
“Oh hell, I bang heads with everybody,” Malloy said. “Every discussion I ever had with (Palmer) – whether it was around politics or the closure of Wright Tech (in Stamford) or the future of the ‘vo-tech’ high schools in our state or the organization of nurses or the rights and responsibilities that employers have to employees – more often than not, we’ve been in agreement. That doesn’t mean we were in 100 percent agreement, but we were far more often in agreement.”
Former Stamford and Bridgeport official Dennis Murphy has been acting DOL commissioner since the departure last spring of Glenn Marshall, a longtime carpenter’s union activist from Milford with an extensive background in workers’ safety and rights, but relatively scant experience in workforce development.
“I’m very proud of what the Labor Department is doing – more inspections, more protection of employees, holding people to a far higher standard than any recent administration has held employers,” Malloy said. “That work is going to continue.”
Palmer makes two straight appointments for Malloy of union officials to lead DOL. He said that was not by design, but also expressed his admiration for the work of labor unions, dating back to his youth when his mother was a union member.
“It is called the labor department, but there is no exclusive franchise (for unions),” Malloy said. “I have had labor representatives fill the job; on an acting basis, I had someone with a management background (in Murphy).”
Still, Malloy again passed up potential opportunities to install an expert in the workforce needs of corporations, even as he starts a lengthy experiment in turning around Connecticut’s worst schools. In Palmer, Malloy gets an activist well versed in the challenges facing schools.
This past summer, Gov. Andrew Cuomo installed a state assemblyman and onetime law-enforcement official as his first appointee to lead the New York State Department of Labor. New Jersey’s labor commissioner is an experienced banker and businessman; in Massachusetts, a former AFL-CIO attorney leads the bureau dubbed the Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
As the case with Marshall, Palmer will have no shortage of workforce experts in Connecticut on which to draw ideas – but suggested she has some ideas of her own on that front.
“I hope I’ll be able to combine my experience in education and retraining and connecting jobs, through higher ed and perhaps through our voc-tech system and our vocational colleges,” Palmer said. “I think I bring some expertise from the area of education.”