Wisconsin Workers under the Thumb of Walker’s Law
Last week I wrote about a new administrative rule that eliminates salary steps for continuing education credits and advanced degrees in base wage calculations for the purposes of what little remains of the collective bargaining process for public employees in Wisconsin. In that story I highlighted the fact that, in addition to restricting the allowable subjects of bargaining to one issue (cost of living increases to “base wages”), Act 10 also eliminated interest arbitration from the collective bargaining process.
Interest arbitration became a statutory part of the collective bargaining process for public employees in 1978. It was enacted as a way to avoid lengthy, contentious contract negotiations and strikes, and it encouraged both sides to compromise and to make reasonable final proposals. If negotiations came to an impasse, an independent arbitrator had the power to decide which side’s offer was most legitimate, given comparable salaries, history, market conditions and budget constraints. Arbitration served as a check on the abuse of power.
According to Katy Lounsbury, attorney for AFSCME Council 40, the loss of interest arbitration under Act 10 “makes collective bargaining a sham.” She explained: “At the end of the day, when one party has 100% of the power to institute their offer, there is no real bargaining.”
Even so, before the new administrative rule defining base wages was in effect, unions still could have brought a complaint against employers for not bargaining in good faith if the employer proposed outrageous pay cuts. But the new rule sets the ceiling so low on base wages that employers can now claim they’re bargaining in good faith even while low-balling workers. “You can’t accuse employers of bargaining in bad faith if they’re giving employees everything they’re permitted to give,” said Lounsbury.
Not only does Act 10 restrict collective bargaining to base wage cost of living increases, it actually prohibits unions from bargaining with employers on any other subject. Even if an employer wanted to add the salary steps for higher education credentials and credits back into the employment contract, they are legally forbidden to do so. Whatever “incentive pay” or “educational wage credit” employers wish to offer must be set out in policy as supplemental to base wages. It is totally discretionary, and therefore not subject to legal action by workers or their unions.
Act 10 also changes the law as it pertains to workplace actions by employees. Under the new law, unions can now be punished for the behavior of their members even if they did not sanction, encourage or ratify that behavior. And if workers should strike, the Governor now has the power to order an “emergency,” and any employee who is absent from work for three days or more during that emergency can now be fired.
Veteran labor attorney Bruce Ehlke, who litigated on behalf of labor unions in the 1970s during a period characterized by dozens of public sector strikes, says this about public workers in Wisconsin under Act 10: “They are basically wage slaves. They don’t have any real rights.”
Ehlke and Lounsbury agree that the far-reaching provisions of this assault on public workers don’t just roll back labor law to an earlier time. They actively cultivate hostile environments for workers. “Who in the world would want to go through the effort of earning the degrees necessary to practice in these professions (teaching, nursing, law) only to find themselves in employment where they are treated as children, where they have no say at all over their conditions of their employment?” asked Ehlke.
He further pointed out that the prohibition on bargaining subjects is a violation of constitutional protections of the freedoms of assembly and speech: “Things that we’ve taken for granted for a long time – since the 1800s – have changed.”
It’s been just shy of a year since Act 10 became law, and teachers and other public workers are still reeling from the shock. Many have taken early retirement. Some union members are still operating under pre-2011 contracts, so the full impact hasn’t hit them yet. Some unions, like MTI, the Madison teachers’ union, have begun to reorganize their operations to increase advocacy and organizing activities since their role in contract negotiations has been greatly diminished.
But the question of recourse for workers who feel wronged as a collective by their employer still remains. If the arbitration process implemented to keep the peace between workers and their employers has been repealed, and if penalties for strikes have been so drastically increased, what are workers to do? And what does it mean for the public institutions upon which the rest of society relies if the people who work in them are so beaten down and demoralized by oppressive working conditions?
These are the tough questions we must continue to ask ourselves and our elected leaders who have the power to change the law. While recalling Scott Walker will feel like an enormous victory for the people of Wisconsin, a new governor cannot single-handedly repeal Act 10, or any of the other hundreds of other corporate friendly laws passed this session. It will take the continued efforts of people educating their family members, co-workers and neighbors about the issues, and then working to organize actions and campaigns to promote a different vision for society.
Rebecca Kemble is an Anthropologist who studied decolonization in Kenya. She serves on the Board of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives and is a founding member of the Wisconsin Citizens Media Cooperative.
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