Wisconsin Public Employee Unions Allow Certification to Lapse Because Its Too Much for Too Little

We have been following Wisconsin’s battle over the bargaining rights of public employee unions. See blog of March 2, 2011. In March, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker signed legislation which ended all public unions from bargaining except for negotiating small wage increases to meet inflation. Additionally, the legislation requires that unions go through a yearly recertification process, requiring members to vote annually to recertify the union instead of indefinite certification when members vote to create the union.

Last month, September 22, 2011, as a result of the new law, the major state employees unions, which represent tens of thousands of Wisconsin workers, elected to allow their status as unions to lapse. Bryan Kennedy, the president of the American Federation of Teachers-Wisconsin, which represents roughly 17,500 members in Wisconsin stated the union will not seek recertification as a collective bargaining group. Kennedy indicated that one of his unions has members all over the state and would need to spend vast amounts of time and money to collect the requisite votes for recertification. He said “[y]ou go through all that and all you get to do is bargain (for limited raises).” To see the article posted in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, click here.

A similar bill had been presented to the Washington State Senate Labor & Commerce Committee. See our post March 30, 2011. State Senator Joe Zarelli introduced a bill in the legislature that does not restrict the collectively bargaining rights of public employees, but rather Senator Zarelli’s bill rejects the collectively bargaining agreement that Governor Gregoire reached with state employees by challenging specific terms of the collective bargaining agreement. The terms at issue are the limit on the employee’s share of health care premiums to 15% (Governor Gregoire had sought a 26% contribution), step salary increases for employees, limitations on health care plans, temporary salary reductions that do not carry forward, and the sick leave cash out available to state employees. Although the bill was reintroduced at Washington’s 1st Special Session on April 26, 2011, the bill does not appear to be going anywhere.

The issue surrounding public employee unions is that, unlike industrial unions, public employee unions are not organized against the power of capital; instead, they are organized against the power of the public and the public officials. Public employees in a union negotiation sit on both sides of the table. Unions are significant contributors to political campaigns and are known for their fierce activism in campaigning for government candidates. Thus, they exert undue power over the politicians-the very persons who the public employee unions are negotiating with. While industrial unions negotiate with the knowledge that a company will shut down if the union does not make concessions, public employee unions realize that if negotiations fail with the public entity, the public entity will not shutdown government (i.e., the schools, buses, or water system). Essentially, the public employees can negotiate to a standstill, confident in their position that the public entity will not fail if the union fails to concede in the negotiation.

Over time it has been easier for the politicians to negotiate big pension plans and work rule packages than wage increases. For example, politicians have found it easier to give the teachers’ unions the right to determine the length of the school day and how to hire and fire teachers, rather than to raise wages which causes fallout for the politician. When wages are increased, the politicians must raise taxes in the short term which makes the politician accountable. On the other hand, when the politician gives in to long term pension benefit packages (unfunded) and work rule concessions, the short term impact is relatively slight while the long term impact is devastating to the taxpayers.

President Obama has often complained that the powerful teachers’ unions are an impediment to educational reform primarily because of the work rules in place after many years of collective bargaining. It is difficult to fire teachers, good teachers cannot be rewarded, and when layoffs become necessary, instead of having the flexibility to layoff the worst teachers first, the powerful teachers’ union insist that the last hired be the first fired regardless of competence. These seniority work rules are not in the best interest of our children.

With Washington’s remaining deficit of $1 billion plus, Governor Gregoire is calling the Washington Legislature back in November for another grueling special session. Maybe Senator’s Zarelli’s bill will make it back to the table to help balance our ever growing budget.

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