Walker Not Shying Away from Showdown with Government Unions

Incoming Wisconsin Governor Open to Wholesale Public Sector Labor Reform

MacIver News Service | December 8, 2010

[Madison, Wisc…] Wisconsin Governor-elect Scott Walker is willing to examine the fifty-year-old state law that created government employee unions and subsequent laws that further empowered them.

“Public employee unions are a creature of state law and there might be consideration of changing that state law to empower the taxpayers of the Wisconsin,” Walker said Tuesday in response to a question following his speech before the Milwaukee Press Club. “We are exploring every option out there.”

The Walker transition office provided MacIver News a transcript of the Press Club exchange.

The State of Wisconsin enacted a collective bargaining law for government employees in 1959, led by then-Governor and future U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson.

Did Walker’s comments mean the incoming Republican Administration is seriously considering repealing that law? Apparently.

“Governor-elect Walker’s comments were aimed at ensuring all options are on the table as he works to bring public sector employee benefits in line with the private sector,” Walker Transition Press Secretary Cullen Werwie told MacIver News.

Walker’s willingness to address the costs associated with government union labor agreements come as the legislature is considering what to do with existing contracts.

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.

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.

Walker said Tuesday that passing the proposed contracts could lead to steep cuts in state services.

“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.”

In the 162 year history of Wisconsin, the legislature has only met once in a lame duck session to consider employee contracts, when one agreement was approves in 1974.

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.

In recent weeks, Walker’s comments regarding the cost of government union labor has drawn the ire of government labor union heads.

“We acknowledge that it is fair to ask state employees to share in the sacrifices that must be made to get Wisconsin on the road to economic recovery,” AFT-Wisconsin President Bryan Kennedy wrote in a public letter to the Governor-elect. “But, Mr. Walker, your dishonest portrayal of public sector employees is anything but fair.”

Through documents obtained by MacIver News and posted online, we have learned that legislative leaders are planning on a special session next week. Although this news was not confirmed publicly, the claim was made by government union leadership in correspondence with their membership.