Wisconsin has become the latest battleground in what Eric Alterman recently described as the conservative class war against public sector workers. After signing off on a $117 million tax cut for businesses in January, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker announced today that he will send a “budget repair” bill to the state legislature that allows him to close the state’s $137 million budget shortfall by imposing cuts to state worker benefits without negotiating with state worker unions.
Walker ran on a anti-public worker platform, and his bill reflects this sentiment. If his bill is enacted, the governor would unilaterally increase state employee health care and pension contributions without bargaining. State employees would also have to pay higher out-of-pocket costs for health care services. These cuts would reduce the average state worker’s take-home pay by about 8 percent. If the “budget repair” bill is passed, the cuts would become effective on March 13 when most of the state’s collective bargaining agreements expire.
State workers would no longer be allowed to bargain collectively for anything but wage increases, and any future wage increases would be limited to the rate of inflation unless voters approve higher raises. Right now, state law requires the state to bargain with workers over their health care and pension benefits, wages, disciplinary procedures, and outsourcing. The bill would also no longer require non-union workers to pay the union a fair share payment for services they receive from the union.
If enacted, state workers would lose any voice they have in crucial job-related decisions. “Something as simple as the grievance procedure will be replaced with the civil service procedure, which establishes the agency head as the final decision maker on your grievances. Everything will be in the hands of and controlled by the employer, without employee recourse,” read a statement from the Wisconsin State Employees Union AFSCME Council 24 to its members.
Union leaders said that it was unfair to balance the state’s budget on the back of state workers, who earn less than their counterparts in the private sector. “States across the country have budget challenges because of a national economic crisis, not because Wisconsin’s public employees earn modest wages,” said Rick Badger, executive director of AFSCME Council 40. ” Taking away rights from caregivers, correctional officers and snowplow drivers means undercutting our state’s fragile economic recovery – and it puts the health, safety and well-being of our communities at even greater risk.”
Marty Beil, executive director of the Wisconsin State Employees Union AFSCME Council 24, said that Walker’s proposal was “a job killing attack on public workers.” Beil said that contrary to the myth that Walker and other conservatives have been spreading, “public employees in Wisconsin earn less than their counterparts in the private sector.”
AFSCME, which represents state and local government workers in Wisconsin, is planning an all out fight against the bill. It urged members to contact legislators, and it scheduled rallies February 15 and February 16. After the rally, union members will speak directly to lawmakers.
Walker’s bill is not done deal yet. Republicans control the state legislature, but some Republicans have a large number of state employees living in their districts, and their vote is not assured. “The concept (Walker’s bill) is pretty radical,” said State Senator Luther Olsen (R-Ripon). “It affects a lot of good working people.”