Stubborn Milwaukee County Union Hurts Own Members

Last week was a rough week for Milwaukee County union employees. Those that were not sent lay-off notices by the county were told they might have to be furloughed an additional ten days in 2010.

Of course, had their leadership considered their membership’s best interests instead of just trying to score rhetorical points against the County Executive, the situation might never have come to this.

For 2010, the county budgeted wage and benefit concessions across the board, including union employees. The county budget calls for a wage freeze, no step increases, $30 per month health care premium increase, and a change in the pension multiplier to 1.6%.  In his budget address, County Executive Scott Walker said 48% of the county budget goes to fund wages and benefits for county employees. The concessions are necessary to fill a $10 million budget gap.

However, the unions have not yet agreed to the concessions, forcing the county to address the impending budget imbalance by taking steps to reduce labor costs.  Apparently the unions would rather have fewer members than have their current membership paying a little extra towards their health care.

Unions represent approximately 85% of county employees.  Non-union employees are already under the new wage and benefits plan.   To start to close the budget gap, Walker proposed the additional ten days of furloughs for approximately 1,468 union-represented county workers, for a total of 22 days this year.  Exempted from the furloughs were personnel responsible for the public safety (sheriff’s deputies and employees in the District Attorney’s office), and medical personnel responsible for direct care of patients.

The Milwaukee County Board wisely endorsed the extra furlough days on a 10-7 vote on Thursday.  The County Board issued a statement saying that the extra furlough days were necessary because the employee unions have not yet agreed to the concessions that were part of the county’s 2010 budget.   Walker followed up on Friday with the issuance of layoff notices to 76 county employees working as courthouse security and parks employees.  A private security firm (to be determined later) will replace courthouse security.   In the meantime, Wackenhut Security has been selected to act as a back-up to the existing Courthouse security should they have a “sick out.”

Why the back-up plan? Well, when the county decided to outsource the Courthouse janitorial services to a private firm last year, county employees in those positions had a “sick out” on their few last days, which led to  dirty bathrooms and sporadic litter and full trash bins.

County Board Chairman Lee Holloway was not as supportive of the layoffs as he was of the furlough days. Holloway sided with the unions, saying, “…it needs to be made clear that this is not the County Board’s decision. This was strictly the action of County Executive Scott Walker. I disagree with this decision and think he could have been more creative in developing corrective action plans.”

This is in direct contrast to Holloway’s statement praising the additional furlough days, saying the County Board’s vote indicated, “As painful as it may be, the majority of Supervisors who voted for this resolution, in my humble opinion, are looking further down the road than just the here and now.”

Clearly the furlough days are a temporary solution, while the outsourcing of Courthouse security is more of the “looking further down the road” Holloway praised a day earlier.   Holloway says the County Board specifically rejected the idea of privatizing Courthouse security. However, the board did agree to the outsourcing of security at a different county facility, so it was not a matter of principle as much as it was a concession to union interests, the same union interests unwilling to make wage and benefit concessions.

The County Board also agreed, in passing the 2010 budget, that the wage and benefit concessions were necessary for a balanced budget. Absent those concessions, the County is obligated by law to take other steps to balance the County’s budget.

Holloway knows this and shouldn’t pretend to be shocked and horrified by the County Executive’s decision to lay off employees. Unless, of course, Holloway has proposed other deep cuts in the county budget.

Unfortunately for many union employees of the county, given the reality of the 2010 budget, if their leadership continues to fail to agree to the wage and benefit concessions, more layoffs and furlough days will be inevitable. The current layoffs will only save $1.8 million. The current furlough days will save $2 million. More savings will need to be found unless union leadership returns their focus to the best interests of the union membership.

Holloway and the Board should focus their attention more on getting union leadership to accept the changes rather than pretending along with them there will be no consequences for their intransigence. To solve the county’s budget woes, everyone will need to change their long-term view of county government, including the unions.

By James Wigderson
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