Milwaukee County Board/Union in Denial over Labor Cost Issue

If you didn’t know any better, you would think the County Board in Milwaukee is still debating the last county budget. When the county started the layoffs and adding more furlough days to keep the budget in line, some critics of County Executive Scott Walker took advantage of the opportunity to attack him, ignoring the role the County Board played in passing the budget.

Included in the budget were a number of cost-saving measures that required negotiations with the employee unions for concessions: a pay freeze, 20% cut in pensions, higher health care premiums, and less overtime. The unions have not yet agreed to those concessions, and the numbers dictate that the county add more furlough days, outsource where they can, and reduce headcount where they can, in order to reduce the county’s labor costs.

Listening to AFSCME District Council 48 Executive Director Richard Abelson, he would have you believe the budget provision calling for cuts in wages and benefits are unprecedented, even illegal because it was “unbalanced” when passed. Abelson said to the Shepherd Express:

“This budget presumed that there would be concessions from the unions that at the time that they passed the budget hadn’t even been proposed. I don’t know how you can stretch the definition of a legal budget to somehow include items that haven’t been proposed at the bargaining table when you have an equally binding obligation by state statute to negotiate in good faith.”

Abelson is not telling the whole story. Yes, the budget was passed with the assumption that there would be reduced labor costs from union concessions. However, Milwaukee County is hardly the only government entity to create a budget with assumptions about holding down labor costs that have yet to be negotiated.

For example, Eau Claire’s 2010 budget as adopted included this statement, “The importance of the labor settlements in balancing the budget cannot be over emphasized.” The city included figures for two different scenarios for holding down labor costs, then added, “The more typical labor settlements would have increased the City’s projected budget shortfall by 25% or more.”

The City of Waukesha under Democratic Mayor Larry Nelson has passed budgets with assumptions regarding reduced labor costs two years in a row. In the city administrator’s message regarding the current year’s budget, Lori Luther wrote, “…in order to create a balanced budget, an unprecedented salary freeze was assumed for all budgetary purposes. This salary freeze anticipates no increases in 2010, including the traditional step increases normally afforded particular employee groups. It is important to note, however, that a salary freeze must be negotiated with the labor unions that represent our employees.”

Luther added, “I am cautiously optimistic that negotiations will result in a mutually agreeable solution for a one year labor agreement given these extraordinarily difficult economic times. We have not, however, sat down with the unions to discuss contract proposals but will be doing so in the near future.”

In other words, Waukesha’s budget conversation sounds quite like Milwaukee County’s budget, only the unions are not complaining to the media that the city’s financial plans are illegal.

Eau Claire and Waukesha are doing the appropriate budget planning for the future with a recognition of what can happen if they cannot reach an agreement with the city employees’ bargaining units, they will have to make drastic cuts. Like every other community in the state, they are making assumptions about their costs, and if those assumptions don’t pan out then they will have to make cuts elsewhere.

The difference, of course, is that neither the mayor of Eau Claire or Waukesha is running for governor. The question for Abelson is whether it is really worth risking more layoffs for his membership to score political points against Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, and if he is acting in his union membership’s best interests in pretending the budget passed by the Milwaukee County Board is without precedent.

By James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute