Wisconsin’s public sector unions plot fightback as Supreme Court case looms
Wisconsin’s labor leaders cheered when their nemesis, Scott Walker, dropped out of the presidential campaign last September. Walker’s anti-union message failed to catch fire the way it did four years ago, when he pushed through legislation that hobbled public-employee unions. But while Walker’s political ambitions may have been thwarted , four years on Wisconsin’s public-sector unions remain humbled too.
With Walker’s hard-won 2011 law crippling their ability to bargain and diminishing their ranks, the state’s public-employee unions are struggling to figure out how to increase their strength, membership and collective voice. The plight of Wisconsin’s unions could point the way for public-employee unions nationwide if the supreme court, in a closely watched case to be heard on 11 January, prohibits any requirement that government workers pay any fees to the unions that represent them.
Paul Spink, president of the Wisconsin branch of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said his union (Afscme) is pushing hard to reverse its Walker-induced slide by explaining to workers how much unions can help them and why they should join and pay dues. For Spink’s Madison-based union, this is not a minor matter – it has lost two-thirds of its members and funding since the Republican-controlled state legislature enacted the anti-union bill, Act 10, notwithstanding protests by tens of thousands of union members.
“When we talk to potential union members, we explain, ‘Your working conditions aren’t going to get better unless we act as a unit, as a union,’” Spink said. “We have to relearn the lessons of labor from the 1930s and 1940s – of collective action and collective message.”
Laurel Patrick, Walker’s press secretary, said the law restricting collective bargaining aimed to tackle large budget deficits and stand up to special interests. Indeed, when Walker was pushing the legislation, he said in a speech that enraged union members: “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.”
Spink, a 39-year-old state worker who inspects childcare centers said public employees have become “easy scapegoats” for governors and mayors grappling with budget deficits. “We don’t have very good public relations, we don’t have a very good public image,” Spink said. “We don’t know how to talk to our members about what a union is for. All that has to change.”
With Act 10 crippling unions at many state and city agencies, Spink said that many employees have become too scared to speak out about work problems and many bosses have begun to pay scant attention to worker concerns. “Without a union to protect you,” Spink said, “if you go into your boss and say, ‘You should change your policies, things should be better,’ then your boss says, ‘Would you like to pack your desk now or after lunch?’”
Spink said public-employee unions have to convince the public that workers’ – and unions’ – concerns are also public concerns. Child protective services workers now often have a caseload of 50, he noted, and that’s bad for the children, the workers, and the public.
He pointed to a scandal that has rocked Wisconsin in recent weeks – the state department of justice raided a state-run juvenile prison to investigate accusations that guards had beaten inmates and concealed cases of abuse and neglect. Moreover, youths at the facility – the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls – had assaulted several guards. One inmate had several toes amputated after a guard slammed a metal door shut, crushing the inmate’s foot.
Rick Badger, executive director of Wisconsin Afscme, said a major factor behind these problems was severe understaffing – many workers quit and many shun working there because of unsafe and stressful conditions and low pay compared with prisons in other states and local jails.
“A lot of the problems we believe go back to the loss of workers’ voice, not having formalized labor-management relations,” Badger said. “If people feel they’re not safe at work, they should be able to speak to supervisors without fear of retribution.” He said the guards were scared to talk because there was no longer a union at the juvenile prison.
Act 10, Walker’s signature piece of legislation, bars public-employee unions (exempting police and firefighters) from bargaining over health coverage, pensions, hours, workload and safety. The only issue to negotiate is wages, but raises can’t exceed inflation. Under the act, workers had to begin paying far more toward their pensions and health coverage, meaning an additional 10% of pay out of pocket for many workers.
Act 10 also bars any requirement that government workers pay union fees and prohibits government agencies from collecting employee dues on a union’s behalf. The law also requires any public-employee union that wants to bargain to hold an annual election to determine whether a majority of workers wants a union. Because the law sets a high bar – the union must win not just a majority of those who vote, but of all the workers in the bargaining unit – Afscme has decided against participating in those elections at many workplaces, seeing it as too time-consuming and expensive. Afscme thus gave up bargaining for many state, city and county employees in Wisconsin.
“Make no mistake about it, Act 10 was designed to weaken unions,” Badger said.
Patrick, Walker’s press secretary, praised the law. “In order to get Wisconsin’s fiscal house back in order, Governor Walker stood up to the big government special interests and enacted bold reforms through Act 10. These reforms gave local governments and school districts the tools to manage their budgets while saving taxpayers well over $3bn,” she said.
Leah Lipska, president of Afscme Local 1 – Afscme was founded in Wisconsin in 1932 – said many public employees earn so little that they say they can’t afford the $39 in monthly union dues. (Lipska, a program analyst in the corrections department, noted that some years her family has qualified for food stamps and heating assistance.) “People ask why should I join the union?” she said, noting that her local no longer bargains contracts. “We say, ‘It’s insurance. We will fight for you if you get in trouble.’ But a lot of people say, ‘I never get in trouble.’”
John Havlicek, a Spanish teacher who is head of the La Crosse Education Association, said Act 10 has increased teachers’ workloads, caused turnover to soar and discouraged people from going into teaching. He said high school teachers in his district must teach six classes a day, up from five, and now have less time to work individually with students who are doing poorly.
“We’re not able to bargain over very much any more,” Havlicek said. “We used to have much stronger say in our working conditions. This has really degraded the profession.”
But Vincent Vernuccio, a labor expert at the free-market Mackinac Center for Public Policy, said Act 10 has helped school districts, making it easier for them to balance budget, cut health costs and embrace merit pay. He called the increase in turnover exaggerated, saying there was a jump in retirements right after the law was passed, but departures have dropped since.
Phil Neuenfeldt, the president of the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO, said Act 10 along with Wisconsin’s new right-to-work law would weaken unions politically. “You don’t try to outspend folks like the Koch brothers because that ain’t going to work,” he said. “You have to transition into a different model of organizing, mobilizing and getting out the vote, and you have to do that at the local level.”
Neuenfeldt voiced confidence that the Democrats could win the governor’s mansion if Walker runs for a third term in 2018 – an October poll found that Walker had a 60% disapproval rating, with 39% approving. Neuenfeld said winning the statehouse would be far harder for Democrats because of what he called gerrymandering. A federal lawsuit seeks to have the Republican-led redistricting ruled unconstitutional; it notes that 53% of Wisconsin voters cast ballots for Democrats in the state assembly elections in 2012, but Republicans won 60 seats, and Democrats, 39.
Afscme has begun a nationwide effort to persuade the workers it represents to remain in the union and pay union dues – all part of an effort to retain membership in case the supreme court rules against “fair share fee” requirements in the public-employee union case, Friedrichs v California Teachers Association. Afscme said its effort has boosted membership by more than 150,000 over the past two years.
But all this is harder in Wisconsin, Spink noted, because government-employee unions here have such limited powers. Still, when corrections officers saw how Afscme spoke out over Lincoln Hills, some rejoined, he said.
“I think our message is having an impact,” Spink said. “People are starting to realize that this is truly the only way to improve our lives as public workers.”
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