Gov. Scott Walker and legislative Republicans say they want to eliminate collective bargaining rights for most public employees in part to give local governments and school boards the authority they've long sought to make unilateral adjustments to pensions and other benefits.
As Walker said at his press conference last Friday, "To protect our schools, to protect our local governments, we need to give them the tools they've been asking for, not just for years but for decades."
But local governments and school officials have asked for no such thing.
"We've sought significant modifications in bargaining laws, but we've never sought to eliminate collective bargaining rights," says Miles Turner, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators.
In fact, the association, which represents almost all of the state's 424 school districts, doesn't want to do away with collective bargaining.
Turner says doing so "would create a very problematic work environment because right now we have an established system, and everyone knows how the system works. There's a comfort with everyone having a seat at the table. If you take that away, it leads to an uncertain work environment that could lead to strikes."
Joe Quick, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, says his organization hasn't pushed for an end to collective bargaining either. School boards would like freedom to set up new programs, like 4K or AP programs, without negotiating with unions, but, Quick adds, "You certainly don't need to throw out all the collective bargaining laws to accomplish that."
Similar positions are being staked out by associations representing local governments.
Says Dan Thompson, executive director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, which represents 190 cities and 393 villages, "The governor gave us a great deal more flexibility than we asked for." While the League hasn't taken a position on the governor's proposal, Thompson says opinion appears divided: "I have some members who are very supportive. I have others who think the government's gone too far and it will cause labor problems."
The League has asked the state for eight reforms to collective bargaining, and believes any cuts must be made uniformly among all employees. "The governor's proposal thinks police and fire should be treated differently," notes Thompson. "Virtually every municipal official thinks that's a mistake."
Walker's bill limits wage increases to the cost of living - for all public employees, not just unionized ones. That has many municipalities concerned. "There are times when we have some difficulty filling technical jobs that were never unionized," says Thompson. "We do need to compete with the private sector."
Similarly, the Wisconsin Counties Association has asked for more power regarding collective bargaining, but not to the extent Walker has proposed, says executive director Mark D. O'Connell. Since the early '90s, the association has advocated the elimination of binding arbitration in negotiations and increased employee contributions to health insurance. O'Connell says his membership took those positions "thinking that it would be done in the context of collective bargaining."
But Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald is unfazed by news that the groups representing the state's schools and local governments haven't asked for and in some cases don't want to do away with collective bargaining. He says it's what they will want, if they don't already.
"After they see what the budget looks like from the governor," he said at a press conference Tuesday, "they are going to hope they have this bill passed."
Walker bus blues
Should Gov. Scott Walker succeed in eliminating collective bargaining for public employees, it could cost Madison Metro $7 million in federal funding - 14% of its $50 million annual budget.
The federal government requires that "employee protections, commonly referred to as 'protective arrangements'...must be certified by the Department of Labor and in place, before federal transit funds can be released to a mass transit provider."
Says Madison Metro general manager Chuck Kamp, "It will have an impact, a potentially devastating impact, on our budget."
In 2010, Wisconsin transit systems received $60.9 million from the federal government, including $21.3 million that went to Milwaukee County and $7.1 million that went to Madison. Milwaukee County contracts with a private company for transit services and would not lose its funds.
That's not the case with Madison, which has a public bus system and uses federal money for operational costs and to buy buses. City Attorney Michael May says the city believes its funding may continue even if Walker's bill passes, because it just signed new labor contracts through 2012. "But we don't know whether that will be sufficient to satisfy the Department of Labor," says May.
Kamp says one option for making up lost money could be from the Regional Transit Authority, which was formed last year and has the ability to levy up to a half-cent sales tax, potentially collecting as much as $34 million a year.
But guess what? Republicans are eying legislation to repeal RTAs, too.
A teachable moment
The protests over Walker's proposal to end collective bargaining for most government workers have taken a toll on Scott Mullee.
The teacher at Blackhawk Middle School has been consumed by the conflict. It's all he and his friends talk about. He spends his free time poring over Walker's bill. He agonizes about not being able to teach and the effect it is having on working families. He even dreams about the protest chants.
"It's all-consuming," he says. "It's all I've been thinking about."
Mullee, a former science teacher who now works with students who are having problems in school, finds this attitude worrisome, because he strives to create a good environment. But he perks up when asked if he'll use the protests in his classroom.
"Oh, yeah," he says, relishing the opportunity it creates to teach about government. He understands the need to "teach it without a bias" and lead "healthy discussions."
Mullee knows many people feel teachers are selfishly acting in their own interest. He disagrees. "If I didn't protest, I'd be saying to the kids, 'People can just take away our rights.' We should be teaching kids about the right to assemble."
And while Mullee fears that going back to work Tuesday may send a message that the teachers have caved, he thinks the protests overall are positive: "No matter what, this has brought people together."