Wisconsin Governor Attacks Workers' Bargaining Rights

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Unions that represent public employees in Wisconsin are fighting off an all-out assault on their bargaining rights by Gov. Scott Walker.

Walker's proposal, which he argues is needed to deal with the state's budget shortfall, also would drastically affect workers' benefits by requiring substantial increases in what employees contribute to their pensions and health insurance. In a state where public sector workers have had a voice on the job since the 1930s, the governor would strip workers of the right to bargain over anything other than wages.

AFT-Wisconsin president Bryan Kennedy calls the governor's proposal an attempt to take away any voice for workers in their workplaces. "I believe this governor has demonstrated now by his actions, and by his words over the last three months, that he has no respect for the people who provide vital services to this state," Kennedy said in a local TV news report.

AFT affiliates in the state are working with the AFL-CIO and other labor and community allies to push for a more balanced approach to solving the budget problems—an approach that looks at shared sacrifice from everyone. A new study from the Economic Policy Institute shows that private sector workers in Wisconsin already make over 8 percent more in pay and benefits than state and local public employees make.

Similar legislation attacking bargaining rights has been introduced in other states, , including Florida, Ohio and New Hampshire.

Walker's proposed changes, which are part of a Budget Repair Bill introduced Feb. 11, include:

  • Limiting collective bargaining to the base pay rate; and requiring approval by referendum of any wage increase that exceeds the Consumer Price Index .
  • Requiring an annual vote of collective bargaining units to maintain certification as a union.
  • Rescinding the right of faculty and academic staff in the University of Wisconsin System to collectively bargain.
  • Prohibiting employers from collecting union dues through payroll deduction.
  • Increasing the amount state, school district and municipal employees pay toward their pension benefit under the Wisconsin Retirement System. State employees, for example, currently contribute about 0.2 percent of their gross pay, says Art Foeste, chair of AFT-Wisconsin's State Employees Council. Under Walker's proposal, workers would pay 50 percent of the monthly contribution amount. For 2011, Walker estimates the contribution would be 5.8 percent of gross salary. Foeste, a member of the AFT Public Employees program and policy council, says the increase "would be equivalent to a more than 6 percent pay reduction."
  • Upping state employee health insurance premium contributions. Currently, employees pay approximately 6 percent of the annual premium, or $78 a month for the family plan. Walker wants to increase worker contributions to "at least 12 percent of monthly premiums."

The Chicago Tribune reports that Walker says the Wisconsin National Guard is prepared to respond if there is any unrest among state employees in the wake of the Budget Repair Bill announcement.

Before Walker took office, he derided the pension and healthcare benefits of public employees; and touted downsizing of state government as a way of "ensuring government is providing only the essential services." Walker was the talk of television pundits in early January for saying, "We can no longer live in a society where the public employees are the haves and taxpayers who foot the bills are the have-nots." His first week in office, Walker proposed privatization of the state Commerce Department. The measure, which was approved by the Legislature earlier this month, was signed into law Feb. 9.

AFT-Wisconsin represents more than 17,000 public employees in state government, the university system and school districts. [Dan Gursky, Kathy Walsh, AFT-Wisconsin, Wisconsin AFL-CIO, WISC-TV]

February 11, 2011