The Truth About Wisconsin

The Truth About Wisconsin

March 08, 2011
Originally published in The American Spectator

The fundamental issue in Wisconsin -- and states considering similar budget cuts -- is not whether government employees should contribute more (in Wisconsin's case, more being merely something) to their health or pension plans -- though that is important. Rather, it is whether workers should have the right to say no.

If passed, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's emergency budget will allow workers to opt out of joining a union and still keep their jobs. It would allow workers to vote every year on whether they want to keep their union. And it would take away the unions' ability to automatically deduct dues from workers' paychecks. All of these threaten organized labor's power by giving workers more choice.

Unions allege that, if Walker's budget bill is passed, state employees will be subject to arbitrary disciplinary actions and firings. Nothing could be further from the truth. If Walker's budget is approved, workers will still be able to join unions if they choose, but collective bargaining will be limited to pay only. Moreover, they will still be protected by civil service laws that provide job security and perks beyond anything seen in the private sector.

The majority of those benefits are mandated by Wisconsin's Municipal Employment Relations Act (MERA), section 230 of the Wisconsin Code (the code) entitled "State Employee Relations," and other civil service laws. According to the State of Wisconsin Office of Employment Relations, government employees will still have:

• The right to a harassment/discrimination free workplace.

• The right to due process (prior to being disciplined).

• Grievance/appeal rights.

• Ability to compete for positions (transfer, demote, promote)

• Protection from discrimination in the hiring process because of political or religious opinions or affiliations or because of age, sex, disability, race, color, sexual orientation, national origin or ancestry.

• After passing a probationary period, attainment of a permanent status similar to tenure.

• Protection during times of workforce reductions by a clear set of seniority-based rules and procedures for both layoff and recall. 

Seniority rules are particularly troubling. If the 14 missing Wisconsin Senate Democrats do not return from their "undisclosed location," Gov. Walker may be forced to lay off 1,500 workers to balance the budget. The layoffs will likely be done according to seniority, due to the state's last-in-first-out system, whereby newly hired employees must be the first to be let go, regardless of performance. (This led to Wisconsin's Teacher of the Year being laid off last year.)

 Section 230.34 of the code clearly states, "An employee with permanent status in class… for a continuous period of 12 months or more may be removed, suspended without pay, discharged, reduced pay or demoted only for just cause." [Emphasis added]

The Wisconsin civil service  code gives government employees -- including those not covered by collective bargaining agreements -- vacation and sick leave far more generous than what's found in the private sector. Every new employee who has worked one to five years automatically receives 104 hours off annually, with the vacation time increasing substantially every five years. Those working for over 25 years get a whopping 216 hours off each year -- almost five and a half weeks!

Union claims of government employees being reduced to penury are hogwash. A reduction in state employees' take-home pay could be as low as 4.2 percent, according to Wisconsin State Rep. Kevin Petersen. For a state worker making $50,000 in base pay, not including benefits, this could be $175 a month. Given the option to not pay mandatory union dues -- Wisconsin teachers pay between $700 and $1,000 a year -- the reduction in take home pay could be even smaller. According to the Maclver Institute, the average teacher in Wisconsin makes $56,500 in wages and over $100,000 in total compensation, including salary and benefits.

Democrats claim they are defending the "right" of unions to collectively bargain with the government. Wisconsin State Senator Jim Holperin said, "We are dealing with a matter of principle here, a matter of people's rights." These rights are in fact privileges, granted by the government, and existing only within a government context. The real right at stake is the fundamental and constitutionally enshrined right of freedom of association. Workers should be free to either join or refrain from joining any group, based on individual choice.

For all their talk of "rights" and protecting workers, unions are more concerned with protecting their own power. Gov. Walker's budget does not take away worker protection and privileges but transfers them to the rule of law, and away from union bosses.