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Engineers file labor complaint against state

By James Briggs

The State Engineering Association is the third union group to file an unfair labor complaint against the state of Wisconsin.

The complaint alleges Gov. Scott Walker and the state failed to bargain in good faith, as state law requires, since Walker took office Jan. 3.

“The new administration came in and pretty much gave us the indication he was going to sit down and meet with us, which never happened,” SEA President Mark Klipstein said. “I think that’s all our association ever wanted, was to have a chance to sit down at the table and work on a contract.”

The Wisconsin State Employees Union and AFT Wisconsin, a teachers union, also have filed complaints against the state.

Unlike other union groups, though, SEA is a reluctant adversary to Walker. Based on Walker’s request that Gov. Jim Doyle’s outgoing administration not negotiate new state contracts, SEA hesitated to seek an eleventh-hour deal in December, and many of the union’s members voted for Walker, Klipstein said.

As events involving Walker and the rest of the state Legislature continued to unfold this week, though, SEA members felt the need to take action, Klipstein said.

“He had an opportunity to work this out, and he chose not to,” Klipstein said.

The complaint, though, is mostly a symbolic gesture that is unlikely to result in serious disciplinary action against the Walker administration. Once a labor complaint is filed, there is typically a hearing within 40 days and both sides could spend months arguing their points, said Peter Davis, general counsel for the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission.

The commission eventually will decide whether the Walker administration violated labor law by declining to bargain with state unions. Even if a law violation has been found, though, punishment would be minor, Davis said.

“The traditional remedy is to order the employer to bargain in good faith,” he said. “Beyond that, we’re not sure what the complainants will ask for.”

But by the time the commission would order the Walker administration to comply with state law, that law very likely could be changed. As of Thursday, the Assembly appeared set to pass a bill that would strip most collective bargaining rights from public workers, and Walker had pledged to quickly sign the bill.

William Haus, a labor attorney representing SEA, said the union is pursuing the only course of action available.

“Fashioning a remedy is difficult, but the law provides there should be remedy,” Haus said. “Certainly, (Walker) should be held accountable. It should become a matter of record.”

Even though Walker wants to strip collective bargaining rights, Haus said, that doesn’t change the fact those rights have been in place during the first two-plus months of Walker’s term as governor.

“The law doesn’t change just because somebody has an idea or a plan to change it,” Haus said. “When he was sworn in, the responsibilities for complying with collective bargaining laws, as they stood, fell on him. He doesn’t have the option to ignore the laws because he didn’t like them.”

Even if the complaint doesn’t generate a new contract for state engineers or prevent them from losing collective bargaining rights, Klipstein said, the union believes speaking out is the right thing to do.

“We thought the law was broken,” he said, “so we needed to file.”

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