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Wisconsin workers reeling from anti-union bill

A protester wears a brown bag during the inauguration of Gov. Scott Walker in Madison on Jan. 3. Walker has all but declared war on government employees and their unions. (AP File Photo/The Capital Times, Mike DeVries)

By SCOTT BAUER
Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Public employees were reeling Friday trying to figure out what to do after Gov. Scott Walker asked the Legislature to remove nearly all collective bargaining rights for teachers, prison guards and other government workers across Wisconsin.

They don’t have much time to mobilize.

Walker, a Republican who took office in January, is asking the Republican-controlled Legislature to ram the bill through next week, maybe without a public hearing. Walker’s administration sent Republican and Democratic legislative leaders a letter on Friday outlining his proposal but an actual draft of the bill was not yet available.

Walker also sent an e-mail to state workers on Friday morning thanking them for their service and making the case for the cuts.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker acknowledges the Wisconsin National Guard before his address to a joint session of the Legislature in the Assembly chambers at the state Capitol on Feb. 1 in Madison. Walker's anti-union bill will go to the Legislature next week. (AP Photo/Andy Manis)

“We all recognize that these are historic times that require us to rethink how government operates,” Walker said in the e-mail. “I ask that we continue to work together to do what is necessary to bring the state’s spending in line with our taxpayers’ ability to pay.”

In an exclusive interview with The Associated Press on Thursday, Walker defended the action as necessary to deal with a projected $3.6 billion budget shortfall by mid-2013. He wants most of the changes to take effect almost immediately to plug a $137 million shortfall.

Lawmakers have yet to announce whether there will be a hearing to give the public a chance to comment on Walker’s proposal. Democrats and union representatives, largely reacting to media reports, blasted it as a massive, job-killing power grab that would hurt the state’s economy.

“The right to negotiate both wages and benefits through a union is a fundamental underpinning of our middle class,” Wisconsin State AFL-CIO President Phil Neuenfeldt said in a statement. “Instead of balancing the budget on the backs of hard-working Wisconsinites, we need to come up with a balanced approach that looks at shared sacrifice from everyone.”

The proposal is massive in scope and would present a cultural shift in Wisconsin, which has a long history of organized labor and politically powerful unions that traditionally back the Democrats.

Walker wants to remove all collective bargaining rights, except for salary, for all of the roughly 175,000 public employees starting July 1. Local police, fire and the state patrol would be exempt. Any requests for a salary increase higher than the consumer price index would have to be approved by referendum.

Contracts would be limited to one year and wages would be frozen until the next contract is settled.

Public employers would be prohibited from collecting union dues and members of collective bargaining units would not be required to pay dues.

Starting April 1, Walker wants to force state employees to contribute 5.8 percent of their salaries to cover pension costs and more than double their health insurance contributions. That would generate $30 million this fiscal year.

The bill also would remove the right, granted under former Gov. Jim Doyle, for University of Wisconsin faculty and staff to form unions.

Walker also proposed that his Department of Health Services be given the power to make any changes necessary to save money in Medicaid, without approval by the Legislature and without having to abide by current law governing benefits and programs.

Medicaid is the fourth most expensive budget item, totaling $1.3 billion for the current year, and provides programs for the elderly, low-income, people with disabilities, children, pregnant women and others. It’s projected to have a $153 million shortfall this year, which is driving Walker’s call for immediate budget-balancing action.

Given that Medicaid is a federal-state partnership, it’s hard to know what Walker would intend to do without getting federal waivers, said Robert Kraig, director of consumer advocacy group Citizen Action of Wisconsin.

“The state can’t make Medicaid rules willy-nilly,” Kraig said. “It’s a little hard to ascertain what the implications of this are.”

Walker has called for a study into possible changes to the Wisconsin Retirement System’s defined contribution pension plans and consideration of possible changes to state health insurance plans, including higher deductible options and larger purchasing pools.

The bill also calls for selling off the state’s heating plants, with the money raised helping to balancing the budget.

“This is not a shock,” Walker said in his AP interview. “The shock would be if we didn’t go forward with this.”

While Walker had talked about wanting to force concessions from unions since December, the breadth of his proposal caught union leaders, Democrats and even some Republicans by surprise. Walker unveiled the plans in meetings with Republican leaders, members of his administration and others on Thursday. More meetings and a news conference were planned for Friday.

“This is a shocking development,” said Bryan Kennedy, president of AFT-Wisconsin, which represents 17,000 workers. “It ends collective bargaining for public employees in our state, after 50 years of management and workers solving problems together.”

Democrats almost certainly will unite against the proposal but are powerless to stop it. Republicans control the Assembly 60-38-1 and the Senate 19-14.

Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, said he was surprised Walker went after unions as aggressively as he did.
“It’s not what I thought he was going to do,” said Olsen, adding he honestly didn’t know how Republicans felt about it.

“They’re still soaking it in,” Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said Thursday when asked if he thought Republicans would approve the plan as proposed.

Walker said the changes are necessary to avoid up to 6,000 state employee layoffs and the removal of more than 200,000 children from the Medicaid program.

Walker said the collective bargaining changes were needed to give local governments and school districts the flexibility to deal with budget cuts he will outline in his two-year budget plan released on Feb. 22. Walker said those cuts will be more than $300 million.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

6 comments

  1. As a student teacher, I fear for our schools in Wisconsin. Walker’s proposals will discourage top candiates – such as the ones in my nationally recognized program at UW-Madison – from seeking employment in Wisconsin who will then seek teaching opportunities in other states that continue to offer the benefits that equalize the lower wage we recieve. Walkers plans threaten those wage equilizers and they threaten our schools, teacher qaulity, and our children.

    Tell your legislators to vote NO on the governor’s bill.

  2. Guess what, other states are cutting spending too. It’s a sad reality, but it is reality.

  3. How about a little practise/preach reality from His Imperial Phoniness Scott Walker, cutting some spending by giving up his million-dollar-a-year Executive Mansion with his six fulltime servants, his taxpayer-provided personal chef, gardener, flower arranger and the others?

  4. Irwin:

    I agree that other states are cutting spending and all areas of government alike should share in the pain. However this move seems to have little connection with cutting government spending or actually saving jobs. Most of the employee unions have publically expressed interest in holding direct discussions with our leaders and being part of any solution, yet the controlling party appears to have NO interest. I would much rather see cuts by design rather than thru attrition which will impact your direct customer service. New laws are constantly being created which adds programs and workload to existing employees, but you almost never hear of laws or programs being repealed, do you? That would take a lot more effort to do that and generate less press than it would be to beat up a few public servants.

    This plan to limit unions to bargaining for base wages only may very well backfire. If employers won’t be able to dangle benefits “carrots” to those they are bargaining with, they will have no choice but to compensate employees with wages similar to the private sector which is well documented to be higher than the public sector.

  5. Our kids will be taught correct history, standards and values not marching in the streets of your Greeds! Unions are out soon God wins Devil money lose PERIOD

  6. Minnesotan educator

    Over the past 10 years, educators have had a wage freeze so why IS our economy so bad??? Couldn’t be the unprecedented tax cuts on the wealthy when they should have been paying HIGHER taxes to help fund the illegal war Bush waged.

    First issue – Money and equity:
    The wealthy have not ony gotten off easy this past decade, they have been taking money from these tax cuts that they now OWE us. Minimally, the wealthy should at least be paying the tax rates prior to 2000 but maybe they should PAY US BACK the money they took during those ten years, Instead, educators, who have already taken a pay freeze for the past decade are being blamed for the bad economy and asked to take the brunt of it.

    Second issue – break the unions.
    This is the real strategy. First, pay back the fat cats that got you elected. Then break the unions so that no more democrats can get elected. The GOP and the corporations (as if there was really a difference) fear the unions because they are the only thing left standing between an all Republican one party state (or corporate state) . By state I mean country and by one party I mean a totalitarian government (or at the very least the end of democracy).

    Remember, even if you dont belong to a union, without them we would ALL have lower wages and fewer rights. More importantly without them, the way campaigns are being funded these days we may not even have much of a democracy if they dissappear.

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