Wisconsin unions work to regain lost ground

Wisconsin’s new law that severely restricts collective bargaining for public workers took effect June 29. Since then unions have been working to regain the power they lost as a result of the new law, also known as Act 10. Besides limiting collective bargaining, Act 10 limits the power of unions in other ways.

For example in order to engage in the limited collective bargaining allowed by Act 10, unions must be recertified in annual elections. One union, the University of Wisconsin Teaching Assistants’ Association, AFT in a recent statement called the re-certification requirement “illegitimate and purposefully constructed to focus all union energies and resources toward election procedures and away from . . . employee representation.”

As a result, TAA’s membership recently voted not to participate in re-certification elections. TAA’s co-president said that even though TAA would not participate in re-certification elections, it will continue exist as a union and will continue to advocate for the interests of the 3,000 teaching assistants and project assistants on the Madison campus.

“No law, including one that grants an organization to the right to collectively bargain, makes us a union,” said Adrienne Pagac, co-president of the TAA. “Unions existed prior to the implementation of such laws and unions will remain even though (Gov.) Scott Walker and Republican legislators have taken our rights from us.”

Act 10 also seeks to curb union power by restricting funding for unions. Before Act 10 passed, public employers collected union dues for unions. They also collected fees from non-union members who benefited from union services. This reliable funding stream gave unions the ability to hire staff to represent workers in grievance hearings, conduct research on issues affecting public sector workers, communicate with members about how issues affect them, advocate for worker rights, and organize and mobilize members to fight attacks and improve living standards.

Without such a reliable funding stream, it will be difficult for unions to be an effective voice on the job, which is more important now than ever because local governments, school districts, and the state are in the process of developing new grievance procedures and changing benefits and working condition.

To ensure that public workers continue to have a voice on the job, AFSCME and other public sector unions have launched  campaigns to get members to continue their union membership by paying their dues by other means. As part of its REJOIN Membership Drive, the Wisconsin State Employees Union AFSCME Council 24, which consists of 53 locals, is holding solidarity lunches to give members the opportunity to sign authorization cards that allow the union to collect dues by bank draft, credit card, or debit card. The union has also developed a web page that allows members to authorize dues deductions online.

On Thursday, August 25, Wisconsin state workers will begin paying more for health care and pension benefits. These increases, required by Act 10, will, according to AFSCME, mean a 13 percent cut in take home pay. To protest this pay cut and to drive home the message that union members need to rejoin their unions, unions are urging members to wear their union colors to work to show solidarity.  At the end of the work day, public sector unions will hold a  solidarity rally and march in Madison that begins at the university campus and ends at the state Capitol.

Unions representing state workers have just begun their efforts to authorize dues collections by bank draft and other means because for most of the summer they’ve been focused on the recall elections for nine Wisconsin state senate seats. But efforts by unions representing local government have been underway for a while with good results.

Leaders of AFSCME Local 655, which represents highway workers in Jefferson County, about 40 miles east of Madison, told the Wisconsin State Journal that so far 70 percent of its members have reauthorized dues collection.

In Grant County, about 40 miles southwest of Madison, AFSCME Local 918 has signed up just under 50 percent of its members. Some members have been reluctant to rejoin because they view the loss of collective bargaining rights as the end of their voice on the job. But Local 918 trustee Chris Marfilius told the Journal that he’s confident that when these workers see the union fighting back, many will rejoin. “The more we stand up and fight, the more (members) we’ll get,” Marfilius said.

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