Say "personnel policy" and for most folks it just doesn't ring any bells. And worse, reading personnel policies is like taking a sleeping pill. The problem for 20,000 University of Wisconsin-Madison campus employees is that despite its tediousness, the new personnel policies should not be ignored because they will change everything. They are the full fruition of Governor Scott Walker's plan to end unions at the university.
Here's how: Act 10 (the awful "budget repair bill") functionally ended collective bargaining for public employees, including about 6,300 clerical, technical and blue-collar UW-Madison staff members who were represented by unions for decades. It also banned collective bargaining completely for the 8,500 academic staff, 3,000-plus teaching and research assistants and 2,000 faculty. This was followed by the budget bill, Act 32, which ended civil service protections for UW employees and required the Madison campus to create a personnel system separate from the UW System.
Once the union contracts ended as a result of Walker's repressive legislation, the UW administration had a choice. It could respect the agreements that had been reached with the unions and sustain employee rights in layoffs, promotions and transfers to new jobs. (Indeed, it could extend many of those rights to the 8,000 members of the academic staff who are still largely treated as independent contractors.) Acknowledging that it could no longer negotiate with the unions, it could maintain much of the agreements that had been negotiated in prior years as part of the new personnel policies. It could also continue to meet and confer with unions to solve new problems.
Or it could use its new power to strip employees of their rights.
The UW administration chose the latter. The personnel plan released last month abolishes the rights of employees represented by its unions: job security by seniority in the event of a layoff, preference in hiring for new jobs or transfers to a new shift, and the right to a hearing before an impartial arbitrator in the event of a dispute. Perhaps most significantly, rather than discussing pay and insurance benefits before a decision is made, the plan says that it will ask for the staff's opinion after the plan has been developed by management.
The personnel plan is loaded with buzz words such as "collaboration," "equity" and "toolkits." Warm and fuzzy phrases aside, the UW's new policies are in stark contrast to the actions of Madison, Dane County and the Madison school district, which extended their union agreements. In fact, many school districts incorporated provisions of their expired labor agreements into "employee handbooks."
Walker is fond of saying that he gave local and state managers a "toolkit" to better manage their operations. The toolkit was, of course, the elimination of collective bargaining. This, in turn, would kill unions. Public institutions could use the toolkit and end the union contracts, or they could continue to treat employees as true stakeholders in the institutions in which they serve.
To the surprise and dismay of thousands of UW employees, that bastion of the liberal ideal on Bascom Hill has opted to make full use of Walker's toolkit.
David Ahrens is a member of the Wisconsin University Union, an advocacy organization for UW-Madison faculty and staff. "Citizen" is an opinion series that presents the views of the author. If you would like to reply, please comment or consider submitting an op-ed in response.