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Friday, October 24, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 50.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Wisconsin state employees brace for lower paychecks
Will newly cash-strapped workers opt to pay union dues?
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Mahoney and his girlfriend will take a combined hit of $688 a month.
Mahoney and his girlfriend will take a combined hit of $688 a month.
Credit:Carolyn Fath

Some state employee unions are suggesting that members wear black to work on Aug. 25. The somber garb should match the mood of most state workers whose paychecks that day will, for the first time, reflect the steep increases in employee contributions for health benefits and retirement contained in Gov. Scott Walker's budget.

Steve Mahoney, a purchasing agent with the Department of Corrections, and his girlfriend, also a state worker, are looking at a combined hit of $688 a month in their take-home pay. That's about 8% of their household income and equal to two-thirds of the $965 a month they pay in rent for a three-bedroom duplex in Madison. Because health care premiums are fixed, regardless of income, workers on the lower end of the pay scale could see up to a 16% reduction in pay, says Mahoney.

"This is more than a 'very modest contribution,' which is how the governor kept phrasing it and selling it to the public," says Mahoney, a 22-year veteran of state employment and union steward with the Wisconsin Professional Employees Council, which counts purchasing agents and accountants among its members. Mahoney, who earns just over $28 an hour, about average for his union, says state employees are concerned about how they'll make ends meet.

"This really has a lot of people nervous about picking up second jobs, selling cars, telling kids they have to move out and pay for their own college," he says. Mahoney says some people are also talking about dropping their health insurance altogether rather than pay the higher premiums (current law prohibits employees from opting out of contributing to the Wisconsin Retirement System).

Mahoney and his girlfriend, who share their apartment with her adult sons, will find a smaller place when their lease expires next May. "We're not going to lose our home, but we are going to have to change our living situation," he says.

Despite his reduced income, Mahoney will continue to pay his $45-a-month union dues and try to convince others to pony up as well. His union has been at work since the spring trying to get members to sign up. In May, union organizers contacted more than 400 members at their homes; 46% signed cards to recommit. Last week his organization joined forces with AFSCME Council 24 -- which has some 22,000 state employees as members - and Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) to host a noontime brat fry downtown that coupled as a membership drive.

It's a critical time for union survival. Walker's budget dealt what some would call a below-the-belt blow to labor by prohibiting the payroll deduction of union dues and requiring public unions to hold annual elections in order to be certified by the state. These are costly and time-consuming endeavors. Whether Walker's proposal succeeds in gutting the power of public-sector unions, which, for the most part, are heavy Democratic backers, will begin to play out over the next several months as unions scramble to sign up members and collect dues. Just this week WEAC laid off 42 employees, about 40% of its staff, due to what executive director Dan Burkhalter called Walker's "union-busting legislation."

Mahoney says it is going to take time to get people on board as dues-paying members. "It's going to be difficult once those premiums come out," he adds. "People will have to start making choices."

In their pitch, unions will have to convince employees that they can still provide a service worth paying for. Walker has also made that task an uphill climb.

Unions certified by the state can now only bargain for base wages, with any raises capped by the Consumer Price Index. Unions can no longer bargain with management on any qualitative workplace issues, including vacation time, safety conditions, hours or transfer rights. Given the narrow scope of bargaining allowed, members may well be reluctant to part with their hard-earned cash, especially now that they are paying substantial amounts for health care and retirement benefits.

Given the new playing field, some unions are planning to forgo the state certification process entirely. In the past, unions certified by the state had the exclusive right to sit down with management at the bargaining table. It gave the union leverage and provided an orderly process for management.

But the annual certification process, which is slated for October, promises to be expensive for unions - some think it could cost in the tens of thousands of dollars - and, perhaps, futile. Fifty-one percent of all covered employees - not just of those who vote - would have to approve certification. Many have pointed out that it's a much higher bar than we use for most elections, where a simple majority of those who vote nets a victory for public officials.

"I'm not convinced that going for certification is in the best interests of our Council 40 members," says Rick Badger, executive director of AFSCME 40, which represents some 30,000 municipal workers in Madison and around the state. "We're starting to talk through what we can do if we're certified versus not certified. The new rules make it so limited we don't see the real value for most of our members."

Jana Weaver, assistant director for AFSCME 24, agrees. "We are unlikely to go after certification," she says. "We see we can use our resources in a far better way than going through a fabricated process Walker and the Legislature passed into law."

If unions are not certified, says Badger, there are no restrictions on what they can discuss with management. Yes, he admits, management could refuse to meet with unions, but it's a gamble worth taking. The time and effort that would be spent on yearly certification efforts could then be redirected to different approaches for improving the lives of members, he says.

"If you really care about working conditions it's going to take putting pressure on public officials. We'll be petitioning the employer by meeting with elected officials. We'll be doing things in a different manner than we did in the past." Badger says the union will also use the "court of public opinion" to fight for its members.

Weaver says her union will continue to represent its members with tools that are already in place. "We still have civil service protections; we have other state statutes; we have federal laws, all dealing with protecting members in the workplace," she says.

Weaver says the union will sit down with employers, work through the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission or go through the courts. "Whatever venue is open to us to represent our members, that is where we will go."

Frank Emspak, an emeritus professor at the School for Workers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a former union leader himself, says unions will have to deal with their changed circumstances by seeking out political solutions. "Unions could mobilize and demand that legislators put in proposals to raise wages and duke it out there," he says. They could also cause "chaos" in ways that are unacceptable to employers.

"Sooner or later the only way to deal with it is to develop a more radical perspective or cave in."

Unlike AFSCME Council 24 and 40, WEAC, which represents about 98,000 teachers and education professionals, is still planning to seek certification from the state.

"It's a matter of identity; a matter of principle," says spokeswoman Christina Brey. "I think there is always value to maintaining identity through a formal structure."

But Brey says the union will wait to see what the final rules on certification will be from the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission. "It's definitely a whole new environment out there for labor, and we need all the information first before we can move ahead."

Peter Davis, general counsel for the commission, says he hopes to submit draft rules - which will include the fees unions will have to pay for an election - to the governor's office this week. A separate new law requires that all draft administrative rules be sent to the governor's office for approval.

Davis says employees and unions are not the only ones trying to figure out how things will play out in this "brave new world." Among employers, too, there is a "generalized scramble" to determine protocol, he says.

Davis predicts that future relations between employees and management will depend, in part, on how cooperative and collaborative they've been in the past. He says that even if unions are not certified, there is nothing that would prevent employers from sitting down with any employee or group to discuss areas of concern, whether the issue is fringe benefits or working hours. "It won't be illegal to do that," says Davis. "It won't be bargaining."

But, in the absence of collective bargaining rights, it won't be required, either.

"I suppose there will be [other employers] where they know they can unilaterally make some choices and will do it without any particular involvement from the employees," says Davis.

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