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The Facts on Wisconsin: What the Unions Want, and Why It’s Insane

Only thirty states have such collective bargaining agreements. These are privileges, not rights, and can be taken away.

by
Gary Wickert

Bio

February 21, 2011 - 11:33 am

Wisconsin has had enough, and there is a political revolution underway. Last November, voters stormed the Capitol in Madison with their votes. They are now in the process of fighting back and reclaiming their state from liberal politicians, greedy public employee unions, and a morbidly obese state government.

With the election of Governor Scott Walker, the GOP retaking of the Wisconsin Senate, and an overwhelming Republican majority in the Assembly, Wisconsin is poised to slash spending and undertake the heavy lifting of eliminating the state’s projected budget deficit of nearly $3.3 billion over the next two years. It will take both courage and common sense — but common sense is something this country was founded on.

In January of 1776, journalist and essayist Thomas Paine published the most influential tract of the American Revolution, a political pamphlet titled Common Sense:

Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil, in its worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries by a government, which we might expect in a country without government, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer!

Wisconsin residents must remember Thomas Paine’s words as they face the hard choices necessary to return Wisconsin to fiscal sanity, or they will go the way of California, New Jersey, Illinois, and Michigan. Who would have thought we’d ever hear serious political discourse about the possibility of U.S. states actually filing for bankruptcy? We are now, courtesy of liberal tax-and-spend policies, lavish public employee pensions and benefits, and the same sort of Madison fuzzy math used by our former governor to saddle us with soaring deficits.

Wisconsin residents realize what an historic opportunity they have. Even with the landslide conservative victories last November, Wisconsin was the only state in the country where Democrats lost the governorship, a Senate seat, and an entire legislature. The message from Wisconsin voters was clear — restore common sense to government: don’t spend more than you make; smaller government is better government; people and businesses create jobs, not government. The return to fiscal sanity in Wisconsin is no more complicated than that. While the MSM is painting the standoff in Madison as the end of collective bargaining and the union equivalent of Custer’s Last Stand, the truth is far less dramatic.

Wisconsin and the nation have watched as schools across Wisconsin closed due to teachers participating in a “sick out”; unions bused in people from other states to inflate their mob numbers; and Democrat legislators literally ran away to neighboring states to avoid the vote on Governor Scott Walker’s budget repair bill. Understanding the events unfolding is important.

Two areas of state law — one for state workers (Chapter 111 of the Wisconsin Statutes) and one for local government and public school employees (Section 111.70 of the Wisconsin Statutes) — give public employees the ability in Wisconsin to collectively bargain. The law issues a mandate to both the employer (the government, through its taxpayers) and the collective bargaining group (employees represented by a union). The two sides must “meet and confer at reasonable times, in good faith, with the intention of reaching an agreement” on wages, hours, fringe benefits, and conditions of employment. In other words, public employees, unlike the rest of the planet, are given extraordinary leverage to determine what they are paid or given in those areas. They do not have such a say under civil service rules.

Civil service protections are put into state law by the legislature, or put into a local ordinance by a city council, or village or town board. Currently, state employees are covered by civil service, but most local government employees are not, and no public school employees are. Civil service protections set forth extraordinary public employee benefits such as vacation and overtime, prohibiting termination for reasons other than just cause, and creating procedures for employees to file grievances and to have those complaints heard. In and of themselves they constitute protections and benefits real-world employees do not have. However, civil service laws do not provide a right for employees to bargain with their employers over those issues and others. The terms are set by the employer.

Walker’s budget repair bill, along with an amendment approved by the Joint Finance Committee, would require local governments that don’t have a civil service system to establish one, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau. As an option, local governments could establish a grievance process that would address employee discipline, workplace safety, and employee terminations. This is still more than most real-world private sector employees have. The only choices regular people have are to accept what is being offered or go to work somewhere else offering something better.

While collective bargaining rights after Walker’s bill passes would remain intact for the State Patrol and local police and fire department employees, because they are exempt from such changes, the rest of state, local government, and public school employees would have their collective bargaining ability limited to the rate of base pay. And it’s about time.

Wisconsin can no longer afford public employee unions having a stranglehold on state and local government. The money just isn’t there. Wisconsin is broke. And Wisconsin private sector employees — who don’t have the same lavish pensions, health plans, and job protection — can’t afford to pay any more taxes to prop up the public employees and their union bosses.

Collective bargaining is not a right, not with the military and not with public employees. In the 1950s, Wisconsin became the first state to give its public workers the ability — not the right — to bargain collectively. School teachers had no collective bargaining rights until after the illegal strike by the Hortonville School District in the 1970s. Collective bargaining is a privilege given them, and it can be taken away.

Wisconsin is one of only about 30 states with collective bargaining laws covering state and local workers. Since the 1950s, however, government employee unions have exploded in size and power, and benefits and pensions are forcing many states into bankruptcy. Public employees retire in their early 50s and Wisconsin taxpayers must continue sending to their Florida retirement homes checks for a significant portion of their former salaries for decades to come. While the rest of us struggle to put aside a portion of our earnings for our 401(k)s and watch as they dwindle in size during the recession, retired public employees in their 50s simply walk to their mailbox for the checks we send them, courtesy of the taxpayers of a state with a $3.3 billion deficit. It is the very definition of insanity.

And let’s not forget that public employee collective bargaining itself is also a rigged game. Wisconsin’s collective bargaining law says that state-appointed arbitrators must consider agreements both internal (unions within the school district) and external (agreements struck by other school districts) when ruling on disputes submitted to them with regard to pension and health care benefits. When hundreds of school districts bargain at the same time, one is bound to cave. Then the next, and the next. And soon every state-appointed arbitrator is legally required to look at the going rate of the districts which have caved, and the domino effect begins. When two sides don’t agree — and the public employee unions rarely give in where it counts — they must submit to binding arbitration with state-appointed warmed-over Marxists filling the role as arbitrators. The result: a $3.3 billion deficit.

Under Walker’s bill, public employee unions lose only the ability to collectively bargain for these lavish benefits. A mere 5.8% of the average state employee pay will be required to go toward their pension, and they would be responsible for only 12.6% of their own health insurance costs. This is a deal virtually any private sector employee can only dream about — after Walker’s bill passes, the Sun will still rise, the Earth will still turn on its axis, and public employees will still have better pay and benefits than the private sector.

Why are unions busing in sucklings from across the country? Because they can see the handwriting on the wall. With collective bargaining limited to salaries like the rest of us, public employee union members will ask why they’re paying all this money in the form of mandatory union dues. If Walker’s budget repair bill passes, it will create momentum for similar bills pending in Ohio, Indiana, and other states.

However, there is another and perhaps more compelling reason why unions are treating Madison like the Alamo. As my Dad taught me: when looking for someone’s true motivation, always follow the money. Walker’s bill also would allow public employees to avoid making mandatory dues payments to unions if they don’t join those unions.

Currently, workers can choose not to join unions, but they must make “fair share” payments similar to dues — a requirement that unions say is needed because all workers benefit from their work at the bargaining table. Imagine the money the unions will lose if union members can keep that money and spend it on their own family instead. Without funding, public sector unions will wither and die like a noxious weed.

Public employee unions are the sworn enemy of balanced budgets and private sector taxpayers who are struggling to make ends meet and simultaneously plan for and fund their own meager retirement plans. It was George Meany — former president of the AFL-CIO — who said: “It’s impossible to bargain collectively with the government.” This is because the labor movement has always viewed unions as a vehicle to get workers more profits out of a company. But with government, there are no profits. They merely negotiate for more tax dollars. Even Franklin D. Roosevelt warned us about public employee unions, saying that it was “unthinkable and intolerable” for government unions to strike.

Public service workers are hard-working and do a good job overall here in Wisconsin. Who can blame them for wanting more pay and better benefits? But they are a minority of the workers in this country. Their salaries and benefits are paid for by taxpayers who have no more to give. The unemployment rate among government employees is a mere 2.8% and their salaries and benefits far exceed that of the private sector — all at taxpayer expense.

Wisconsin is broke. Not only do we have a $3.3 billion deficit, but we also have a $137 million shortfall coming this June. Governor Walker’s budget repair bill is only the first in a long line of austere measures which must be passed to restore fiscal sanity to Madison and avoid layoffs for some of the union sign carriers this week in Madison. He is not busting unions. He’s returning fiscal sanity to Madison. In doing so, Walker is following in the footsteps of Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey. That puts him in some pretty good company.

Gary Wickert is a board-certified trial lawyer, living in Cedarburg, Wisconsin with his wife and two sons. He has a political column in Reality News and has been an op-ed contributor for Ozaukee County's News Graphic as well as a feature writer for several Wisconsin magazines. He is also the author of several legal treatises on a variety of subjects and currently serves as supervisor in the town of Cedarburg. In 2011, Gary lost a bid for the Wisconsin Assembly in the Republican Primary by 72 votes.
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