Gov. Scott Walker released an emergency budget plan Friday, Feb. 11, that will curtail collective bargaining for more than 175,000 state and local public workers.
Walker also disclosed that he has briefed Wisconsin’s National Guard to prepare for any union unrest.
Under Walker’s plan, all state, county and municipal workers, as well as teachers, will have their bargaining rights restricted to pay. Benefits such as health insurance and pensions will no longer be included in negotiations.
Law enforcement and firefighters will be exempted from the proposed changes, while the University of Wisconsin faculty and academic staff would lose all collective bargaining right, as do employees of UW hospitals and clinics, home health care staff working under Medicaid and family care workers.
The governor also seeks to require public workers to pay more toward their pensions and health insurance benefits.
Walker has proposed that all state employees pay at least 12.6 percent of their annual insurance premiums and pay 50 percent of their annual pension contributions or an estimated 5.8 percent of their 2011 salaries.
Currently, state employees pay about 6 percent toward their health insurance premiums. Public employers contributed almost $1.37 billion to the state’s pension fund in 2009, while employees contributed about $8 million, or about 0.6 percent, according to figures released by the governor’s office.
The changes are expected to save the state $30 million between April 1 and June 30, which marks the end of the 2010-11 fiscal year.
“The state is broke,” according to state Rep. Kevin Petersen. “Right now, we’re $137 million short of paying the bills for this fiscal year. On top of that, as we work the budget for the next two years, we have to come up with another $3.6 billion. You can’t solve this without making some cuts.”
Petersen said public employees need to make the same concessions that private-sector employees have made as a result of the challenges facing the economy.
He noted that the state employee’s health insurance program currently costs the state about $1 billion per year.
“If you look at collective bargaining over the last 10 years, every contract the public unions have signed have had benefit increases and almost every one was signed 15 months past its due date,” Petersen said. “The state doesn’t have 15 months. We’re broke right now.”
Petersen said Walker’s plan will also tie base wage increases to inflation. Any public worker pay increases above the rate of inflation would have to be approved by a referendum.
He said the average state worker’s total compensation, including wages and benefits, is about $76,500 in 2010.
If the plan is not approved, Wisconsin will have to take 195,000 children off BadgerCare or eliminate services to more than 16,000 elderly and disabled. The state would also have to lay off an estimated 6,000 workers, Petersen said.
Under the Republican plan, public employers, such as municipalities and counties, will be prohibited from collecting union dues and employees will be allowed to refuse to pay union dues.
“We’re giving the tools to local units of government to keep their employee costs under control,” Petersen said.
He added that the governor has guaranteed that there would be no wage cuts, no layoffs and no furlough days under the plan.
Pat Phair, with the Waupaca Teachers Association, said Walker’s plan seeks “to strip away collective bargaining rights, and push teachers and civil servants into a corner.”
He said the results could be devastating not just for teachers, but for school board members as well.
“Future relations may be much more contentious, adversarial and difficult for people to get along,” Phair said.
He noted that Waupaca teachers already pay a greater share of their health care costs than Walker has proposed.
“We’re paying 15 percent in health care costs and have been for a long time,” Phair said. “Our last contract had no increases in the first year (2009-10) and about a 2 percent increase in total compensation for the second year. We did that – the school district and the teachers – voluntarily because we believed it was necessary given the economic situation.”
Phair described collective bargaining as a small group of people who are selected from among the teachers and the school district to sit down at a table together and negotiate terms for a contract that applies to the entire faculty at the schools.
“If there is no collective bargaining, it means that every teacher needs to bargain individually,” Phair said. “I don’t think the taxpayers want all the teachers to spend their time meeting with administrators to negotiate their contracts. It’s more efficient to have a small group represent the teachers.”
Phair said he was concerned about Walker’s announcement regarding the National Guard.
“He knows how unpopular some of his proposals are and he’s using the National Guard as his pit bull,” Phair said. “I think he’s seizing upon the opportunity because he has wanted to do away with unions for years.”
Houston Parrish represents Waupaca County workers at the courthouse, the jail, the highway department and Lakeview Manor, as well as the city of Waupaca’s Department of Public Works. He is with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).
“It’s a disguised proposal to strip public employees of all rights,” Parrish said, regarding Walker’s budget plan. “They’ll only be able to bargain wages, which is meaningless if you can’t bargain anything else.”
Parrish called the Republican claim that the plan is needed to fix the state budget, “false and deliberately misleading.”
He said Walker rebuffed the unions when they attempted to negotiate contracts with the new governor, adding that public workers recognize they need to pay a greater share of the costs for their health insurance and retirement. However, Parrish believes the bill is not about cutting costs, but destroying workers’ rights in Wisconsin.
He pointed to the plan to prohibit public employees, such as municipalities and counties, from collecting union dues.
“Around $35 per month is collected from employees’ pay checks per month and paid to the local bargaining unit so it can operate. It doesn’t cost the employer a red cent,” Parrish said. “If the bill was just about fixing the budget, there would be no need for those sort of punitive proposals that directly attack unions. Walker doesn’t like unions and he doesn’t like employees having rights.”