By SCOTT BAUER
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Forcing concessions from state employees is a popular talking point for Gov. Scott Walker and one that likely will find a central place in his first State of the State speech on Tuesday.
Publicly at least, union officials say they want to keep talking with Walker. Privately they worry he will circumvent the bargaining table and go for an all-out evisceration of their right to negotiate over health care and pension costs.
Republican legislative leaders have joined Walker in identifying labor costs as a place where the state should look to cut costs to help balance a projected $3 billion budget shortfall. Walker, whose speech will be televised live statewide, said he will use the address to begin talking about how his budget plans with all the details coming in February.
“We expect to hear a grim financial outlook and a way forward,” said Scott Spector, lobbyist for union AFT-Wisconsin, which represents about 17,000 state employees. “We hope it’s going to be a cooperative message that we can all work together and not balance it on the backs of workers.”
Walker hasn’t said yet how he’ll balance the budget, but he’s made clear that he wants union members to feel some pain. On Friday he told a gathering of Wisconsin mayors and community leaders that he continues to support forcing public employees to contribute to their pension costs and pay more for health care, a move that could save up to $154 million by June 30.
How he would do that, either through negotiating with unions, a law change or in the state budget, is still being discussed, he said. Walker has also talked about turning Wisconsin into a right to work state where labor unions can’t force employees to be members or pay days as a condition of employment.
Republican lawmakers are waiting to see what approach Walker takes before attempting to abolish the unions, or make significant changes, through law changes, Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said.
“We’re not going to walk through hell and go through that if the governor doesn’t offer that up,” he said.
Even tougher than Walker’s talk will be his ability to do what he wants.
His choices boil down to either changing state law, which will be difficult even with a Republican majority, or negotiating with unions whose members and leaders are livid with Walker.
“The guy has created the hostile environment,” said Marty Beil, executive director of the Wisconsin State Employees Union in December. “Now he’s going to have to learn to deal with it.”
Walker may be trying to panic the unions by talking tough in order to get deeper concessions at the bargaining table, said Ron Blascoe, a union activist who retired in 2009 after 32 years as a state employee.
“His leverage is at the negotiating table,” Blascoe said. “He can’t change the law unilaterally. There are still requirements in the law that the state negotiate in good faith.”
Even with a Republican-controlled Legislature, abolishing collective bargaining rights in a state with deep labor roots would be a political minefield Walker would be wise to avoid, said Paul Secunda, a Marquette University law professor who specializes in labor law.
“It would be tremendously risky politically,” Secunda said.
As much as he may want to, Walker can’t follow in the footsteps of Indiana where Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels did away with collective bargaining through an executive order in 2005.
Unlike other states, the right of state employees to form unions and collectively bargain in Wisconsin is established under a 1971 law. It would take action by the Legislature, not a simple executive order from Walker, to strip unions of their rights and authority under the State Employment Labor Relations Act.
Walker and the Legislature could change the law to disallow the unions to negotiate over issues like health insurance and pensions. There are already a number of issues outlined in state law that unions aren’t allowed to negotiate, including retirement benefits and the mission of state agencies.
The law also governs labor relations. It bars state workers from striking and establishes processes to resolve disputes.
“Without the law, the gloves are off,” Blascoe said.
Walker came into office after serving as Milwaukee County executive, where he also butted heads with unionized county workers. About 4,000 of them have been without a contract for nearly two years.
He wasted no time angering state unions, calling for them to stop negotiating with the state on their current contract even before he took office as governor.
Walker said union workers should be forced to make a 5 percent contribution to their pensions and increase their share of health insurance costs up to 12 percent. Currently, most workers don’t contribute anything to their pensions and pay between 4 percent and 6 percent of their health insurance costs.
His call was ignored then, but Walker’s comments Friday to the mayors seemed to indicate he would pursue forcing the change by changing the collective bargaining law and not negotiate with the unions which represent 39,000 workers.
“We obviously hope that his people will come to the table and bargain in good faith,” said Bryan Kennedy, president of AFT-Wisconsin.
Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller, D-Monona, said he expected to see bills that seek to remove collective bargaining rights.
“There’s certainly the indication that the new governor is willing to exercise all the power available to him,” Miller said.