Democrats Defend Government Unions as Gov-elect Walker Looks for Cost Savings

MacIver News Service | December 9, 2010

[Madison, Wisc…] As Republican Scott Walker prepares to be sworn in as Wisconsin’s next governor on January 3rd, legislative Democrats are turning up the rhetoric over his desire to have government union workers pay more for their health care and pensions.

Earlier in the week Walker detailed how changes in the pending employee contracts could help fill the existing state operating deficit and prevent cuts in state services.

Those comments drew the ire of government union officials.

Marty Beil, Executive Director of the 22,000 member Wisconsin State Employee Union told a Green Bay television station,“It’s like the plantation owner talking to the slaves. We’ve moved in Walker’s mentality from public service to public servitude.”

In an interview with Fox 11, WLUK, Beil continued “[H]ere he sits as the incoming governor, basically issuing mandates about what he wants to happen. Governors and employers don’t do that especially in the modern era of labor relations. We sit down at a table to talk about things.”

Democrats in Madison are echoing the complaints of the government union officials.

Sen. Miller

“Scott Walker is picking an unneeded, unjustified and unproductive fight with workers,” said incoming Senate Democratic Leader Mark Miller (D-Monona). “Unfortunately the Governor-elect continues to prove he will push misguided policies that blame working men and women and threaten critical services such as prison security, neighborhood safety, seniors’ health services and our children’s education.”

The controversial 2009-2011 agreements, negotiated by the Doyle Administration and 19 collective bargaining units, must be ratified by the legislature’s Joint Committee on Employment Relations and the full legislature as well. In most cases, the agreements between the State and the public employee unions also require the ratification of the rank and file union members. Union members are in the process of reviewing and approving the agreements.

“I have received extensive budget briefings on both our overall $3.3 billion structural deficit and the current fiscal year shortfall,” said Walker. “It’s important to keep all options on the table. If the lame duck legislature passes employee contracts now, their action will tie my hands when trying to deal with the deficit moving forward.”

While the full details of the contracts have not been released to the legislature or the public, prompting Republicans to worry about their contents, MacIver News Service has obtained some summary documents and has posted them online.

The agreements include only slight increases in employees health insurance premiums and appear to empower state government employees with more control over staff reassignments that could come in the wake of potential layoffs and other cuts.

“We request that legislators return as soon as possible this month for a brief session to approve the public employee contracts. Wisconsin AFL-CIO President Phil Neuenfeldt wrote in a memo to legislators this week. “We ask that legislators observe the reliable process and legal framework that has governed state labor-management relations for decades by returning this month to approve the agreements that state employees bargained in good faith with their employer.”

However, Walker said this week that passing the proposed contracts could lead to steep cuts in state services. According to a memo by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, which Walker released, in fiscal year 2011 (which ends June 30) the State of Wisconsin is facing the following shortfalls:

  • $148 million in Medicaid
  • $9.5 million in the Office of Public Defender
  • $90.7 million in the Transportation Fund

Walker’s office indicated that minor changes to the proposed labor agreements could reap significant savings.

Requiring state workers to make a 5% contribution to their own pensions would save the state $95 million in FY11 if implemented from January through June. The Walker team also says adjustments could also be made to state employees’health insurance plans to allow an additional $59 million of savings to be realized yet this fiscal year.

“If the legislative majorities ram through union contracts prior to dealing with the budget shortfall they created, it will be much more difficult to protect those Wisconsinites who receive MA or who are in need of help from public defenders,”Walker said.

Walker has also expressed a willingness to reconsider the 1959 law which allows government employees unionize or subsequently passed legislation that governs how the state employee unions collectively bargain for wages, benefits and rules government the management and staffing of state agencies.

That doesn’t sit well with some Democrats in Madison.

“I hope that the Governor-elect will step back from his latest campaign to scapegoat state workers and instead focus on what we really need to accomplish, creating well-paying jobs for Wisconsin families and responsibly balancing our budget,” said Senator Miller.

Only once in the state’s 162 year history have Wisconsin legislators met in a post-election, lame duck, session to approve union contracts. Last month, Union leaders informed their members that the y were told Democrats would be convene a session next week. However, no publc announcement about that session has been made by legislative Democrats or the Doyle Administration.