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Overlooked: controversial Wisconsin bill adds to public worker rights

David Hughes's picture

The level of attention being given the state of Wisconsin after its Governor proposed modifying collective bargaining rights for public employee unions is astounding, but Scott Walker's proposal doesn't strip workers of rights: it actually adds to worker's rights when seen in the correct light.

The budget repair bill before the Wisconsin state legislature is controversial. It has been described by none less than President Obama as "an attack on unions." In an attempt to close a severe budget shortfall in the current biennial budget cycle that is now drawing to a close and set the stage for sharp financial reform in the next biennial budget, Governor Scott Walker has proposed a dramatic set of changes in the way public employees relate to the state government. In order to give the state (and local governments) the flexibility to change pension contribution amounts and health insurance, the proposal removes the ability of public employee unions to collectively bargain for pension and health insurance benefits.

Democrat members of the state senate left the state to deny the body the necessary quorum to pass the bill, an action with no precedent in state history. It has also sparked an enormous level of protesting outside the Capitol building, primarily from teacher union members not directly affected by benefit changes (yet) who claim that removing the ability to collectively bargain for benefits is tantamount to slavery. What this ignores is that, in the private sector, salary and hourly wages are negotiable (which the unions can still bargain for even after the bill passes) but the health insurance plan and any retirement plan are dictated by corporate management. The right to collectively bargain on these items is a special privilege enjoyed by public workers; removing this ability simply makes public sector employment more akin to what the vast majority of workers experience - and, to the best of my knowledge, slavery has long been illegal in the United States.

Moreover, the actual concessions imposed by Governor Walker are relatively modest. Currently, state employees contribute nothing to their pension plans; under this proposal, they would contribute 5.8% of their pay. This keeps the very generous pension plan solvent while giving state workers a rate of return much higher than a private worker could ever hope to achieve by contributing the same percentage to a 401(k) plan. Currently, state employees also contribute nothing to health insurance benefits; now they would have to pay for 12% of the cost of benefits - again a deal which remains far more robust than the typical private sector arrangement. Even more importantly, eliminating collective bargaining over health benefits will allow local school districts to shift teachers from the union operated plan (WEA trust) to the state employee plan. Not counting any change in contributions, this move alone will save districts a combined $68 million because the state plan, while very generous, is run more efficiently than the union's self-operated provider.

Talking about "worker's rights" makes for a poignant plea until you dig into the details and realize that, even after these supposedly draconian changes (which have earned Governor Walker comparisons to Hitler and others), public employees enjoy a host of benefits that the private sector does not enjoy. Overall compensation remains quite generous, and collective bargaining over salary remains in effect. Civil service protections remain intact, giving a host of job protections no other class of workers enjoy.

What makes this ironic, though, is that what makes the unions so terrified are the two rights this bill gives to public sector workers. Yes, that's right: this budget repair bill gives public employees two rights they have not enjoyed until now.

The first right is that the government entities (state and local units) will no longer automatically deduct union dues from paychecks. This has the effect of making union membership, previously mandatory, de facto voluntary. In other words, public workers were previously compelled to be a union member as a condition of employment. Now they have the right to decide whether union representation is worth the cost of the dues required. This also eliminates the vicious cycle of the government taking money out of checks, giving it directly to the unions, who then lobby the government for greater compensation - which has fueled the unsustainable budget situation Governor Walker and the state of Wisconsin currently find themselves in.

The second right given to public workers is that a majority of union members must vote each year to recertify their unions. While unions currently elect their membership, who presumably act in the interest of their members, these elections depend on a majority of votes cast. In this case, unions must be continuously maintained by an affirmative vote of a majority of total membership. If, for example, 80% of members vote and 55% of those vote to recertify, that fails to satisfy the requirement because only 45% of total membership have voted affirmatively to continue the union's existence. This will have the effect of union leadership being far more directly in contact with the needs and desires of members rather than the current aloof (and very highly paid) status of leadership today.

Needless to say, these two rights given to workers have union leadership far more terrified than any of the rights taken away by the budget-repair bill. Instead of a guaranteed influx of income from members who do not agree with the political motivations of union leaders, the new status will (in theory) make the unions far more responsive to members who don't share the typically liberal agenda of the unions. If they don't, then it gives workers the right to keep their money and leave the union while still working in their current jobs.

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