MADISON, Wis. - It was a common refrain among union protesters last weekend: “It’s about the rights; it’s not about the money.” But for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, it is about the money -- both the money needed to balance the state budget and the politically influential money union leaders collect and now seek to protect.
Opponents of Walker’s bill to limit collective bargaining and reduce public teacher benefits seem to think the right to collectively negotiate should be treated as sacred. They just want a seat at the table, they say.
Given that, union workers claim they might even voluntarily agree to a reduction in the posh benefits they currently enjoy, such as pensions to which they contribute less than 1 percent and health care premiums for which they pay 6 percent.
But from Walker’s perspective, collective bargaining itself is a fiscal issue, in no small part because it allows union leaders to sit across the negotiating table from voters’ representatives and have an equal say in how the government spends its money.
As long as union leaders have to agree to government spending plans, voters’ representatives do not have the final say. Unions, therefore, can systematically redirect tax dollars to themselves.
The governor’s office is pushing back aggressively, offering real-life examples to support its proposal.
Thanks to union negotiating, for instance, public workers receive paid time off for union activities. In Milwaukee County alone, 14 employees receive salary and benefits to conduct union business, and three of those are on full-time release for union affairs. That means Milwaukee County spent more than $170,000 in salary alone for these employees to do nothing other than participate in union activities.
According to Walker’s office, collective bargaining also involves a certain surrender of management rights. Union-negotiated contracts restrict management’s ability to schedule workers based on operational needs.
This has a direct fiscal impact. When he was Milwaukee County executive, for example, Walker was not allowed to reduce work hours to 35 hours a week - not even to avoid layoffs - because of union opposition.
“For all the talk about an attack on workers in this state, what they’re pushing and what I saw when I was a local government official is the collective bargaining law in this state handcuffed me,” Walker said.
Traditional workers’ rights have been enshrined in Wisconsin state law since the turn of the last century, so the current controversy isn’t actually about that, he said.
“One of the great myths, unfortunately, for a lot of the protesters out there is that, somehow, if we pass our budget repair bill dealing with collective bargaining, all their rights as workers will go away. Couldn’t be further from the truth,” Walker said.
“The reality is, Wisconsin, at the turn of the last century, passed the most comprehensive, the strongest civil service protections in the country. For our state workers, they have the right outside of collective bargaining, so, regardless of their contract, they have the right because of the civil service laws in this state to have merit hiring and just cause when it comes to discipline or even to the point of termination. Those provisions, those safeguards, protecting workers’ rights continue.”
What wouldn’t continue under Walker’s bill is the practice of automatic payroll deductions to fund unions. Public employees could opt out of union membership and return the dollars they now have to pay in union dues (up to $1,100) to their own pockets. Maybe, Walker said, for union leaders, that’s the money that’s really at the heart of the debate.
“Really, these national leaders coming in don’t care so much about their rights as much as they care about the money, and the money they really want is the money that, right now, by law each of those workers is forced to pay to their local union, which ultimately streams up to the internationals in Washington or across the country,” he said.
“They want their hands on that money and it’s not about protecting the workers or the workers’ conditions of pay.”
Examiner contributor Tina Korbe is a reporter in the Center for Media and Public Policy, an investigative journalism outlet at The Heritage Foundation.