Wisconsin Reins in Government Worker Unions

Member Group : Allegheny Institute

Back in the wintry days of February, the nation’s attention was focused intensely on the Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin. Thousands of boisterous protestors took over the public areas of the building in a massive effort to stop one of the most far reaching pieces of legislation the state, or any state, had seen in quite some time. Democrat Senators fled the state in order to forestall a vote on the bill. But in the end the portions of the bill dealing with public sector unions were voted on and passed on March 11.

Act 10 of 2011 is reviled by government workers in Wisconsin and around the country because it removes a huge chunk of the power public sector unions had been given in prior legislation. Passing Act 10 under the circumstances faced by the legislators was an example of extraordinary courage.

What makes Act 10 so beneficial to taxpayers and elected administrative officials while at the same time making it so despised by unions? Four items in particular are extremely important.

First, Section 242 directs all bargaining units to hold recertification elections for their representatives each year. Recertification requires a 51 percent affirmative vote of the entire collective bargaining unit’s membership. If the vote to recertify falls short, employees in that bargaining unit cannot be included in a bargaining unit for twelve months. This provision places the burden of keeping workers satisfied with the ongoing delivery of services by union leadership. When enough members are disgruntled or unhappy with leadership, the recertification vote provides an opportunity to remove the union. What could be more democratic?

Second, Section 227 states: "A municipal employer may not deduct labor organization dues from the earnings of a general municipal employee or supervisor". Municipal employers include all local governments and school districts as well as special purpose entities. A general municipal employee is any employee other than a public safety employee. Public safety employees’ dues withholding is covered under separate provisions of the law.

Putting an end to the practice of having municipal employers deduct union dues from employee paychecks shifts the burden of collection to where it belongs, to the union. Moreover, it reduces administrative costs, record keeping costs and any financial responsibility or liability associated with the dues money. It also transfers those costs to the unions where they should have always been. Clearly, having the union be the dues collector makes it transparent to the employee at each and every pay period how much he/she is paying as they write out the check. It is much harder to collect money from someone who has to write a check than it is to have the employer remove the money from earnings before the worker ever sees it.

To be sure, it will be very interesting to see how well the unions fare in their efforts to keep dues revenue at the levels they enjoyed when the employer deducted the money and sent it to them. Obviously, they are very concerned as the intensity of their opposition to the bill indicates. Moreover, in a related item, Section 219 contains the provision that "A general municipal employee has the right to refrain from paying union dues while remaining a member of a collective bargaining unit". Taken together with the requirement that employers not deduct dues from earnings, the Section 219 amendment is a real threat to the ability of unions to maintain their revenue flow, especially when members are unhappy with the leadership’s performance.

Third, Section 245 prohibits a municipal employer from collectively bargaining with a bargaining unit containing a general municipal employee with respect to any of the following: "Any factor or condition of employment except wages, which includes only total base wages and excludes any other compensation which includes, but is not limited to, overtime pay, premium pay, merit pay, performance pay, supplemental compensation, pay schedules and automatic pay progressions". In short, only base pay is subject to bargaining.

This is a monumental change in the relationship of unions to management in terms of management prerogatives. Work rules, grievance procedures, sick days, seniority driven assignments and privileges, etc., are now to be determined by management and elected administrative officials. That is not to say there will be no employee input on these issues, but it won’t be at the bargaining table where the union negotiators can try to apply leverage or make deals.

And to add teeth to Section 245, Section 327 requires school boards that wish to raise wages by more than the consumer price index increase to submit a referendum to voters asking for approval of such an increase.

Fourth, and possibly the most important law change with regard to public sector unions is contained in Section 243*, which states: "Nothing contained in this subsection constitutes a grant of the right to strike by any municipal employee or labor organization and such strikes are expressly prohibited".

Without the hammer of actual or threatened strikes hanging over the heads of municipal negotiators the likelihood of contract agreements that are excessively generous to workers and punitive to taxpayers is reduced substantially compared to the situation when workers can strike. This provision will go a long way toward bringing controllability to employee costs and has enormous potential to enhance productivity improvements.

All told, these four amendments and additions to the Wisconsin laws governing public sector employees have greatly altered the landscape in terms of who has the power to determine compensation, work rules, seniority rules, etc. Elected administrative officials and taxpayers have been returned to their rightful position as employers rather than doormats facing the extraordinary union powers unwisely granted to labor organizations by the government over several decades.

Wisconsin has shown other states a way to reassert the power of the taxpayer relative to unions with this model of what can be done.

* This section and its interpretation confirmed by a spokesman in the Governor’s office by phone on June 21, 2011.
Jake Haulk, Ph.D., President
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