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Wisconsin Governor Walker’s Proposals Threaten to Bust State’s Public-Sector Unions

13 Feb

In a brazen attack on the state’s unionized public-sector workers, Governor Scott Walker (R) has extended myriad proposals that would slash both unionized workers’ strength and rights.  Detailed in a good story by Monica Davey and Steven Greenhouse in Friday’s The New York Times, Gov. Walker has framed his proposals as a way to get public-sector workers’ compensation “into line” with others in the state.  Republican state legislators, who control both houses and therefore threaten to enact the draconian proposals discussed below, have characterized this assault on workers and unions as necessary belt-tightening in tough economic times.  “In these tough times, I think people are going to feel that this is not that much to ask,” said Jeff Fitzgerald, the Republican speaker of the State Assembly. “Everyone is going to have to pitch in.”

Gov. Walker’s proposals include limiting the scope of collective bargaining for most state and local employees to wages, forcing government workers to contribute 5.8% of their pay to their pensions (far higher than they currently do), and mandating state workers to pay 12.6% of their salaries to cover health-insurance premiums. Yet Walker’s regressive proposals extend far beyond workers’ wages and benefits. Indeed, they incorporate variations of provisions that one finds in right-to-work states by directly rolling back union power. For example, he would cease the long-standing practice of the state deducting union dues from workers’ checks. He would further individualize workers’ relationship to both their employer and their unions by allowing state workers not to pay union dues. As Davey and Greenhouse say, “he would require secret-ballot votes each year at every public-sector union to determine whether a majority of workers still want to be unionized.” To me, this latter provision extends well beyond workers choosing not to pay dues–a core element of right-to-work status ensconced in the regressive, employer-friendly Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. It appears to open the door–in fact mandates–to unions annually defending against potential de-certification campaigns should a majority of workers decide that they do not want to be unionized.

Furthermore, the anti-union efforts of Walker, whose pro-business proclivities appear most prominently on his web site’s bold advertisement, “Wisconsin is Open for Business,” would require state workers’ unions to negotiate contracts every year, and would limit any wage increases (with the exception of firefighters and law-enforcement officials; clearly designed to siphon off their opposition to these) to the consumer price index, unless the state voters approve higher increases via referendum. This wage increase provision represents a curious and, for workers, depressing reversal from earlier eras, when COLA increases meant regular and steady increases in both more robust economic times and periods of somewhat higher inflation. Following the stagflation of the 1970s and starting with Reagan’s deflationary pressures in the early 1980s that directly targeted working people, inflation has been the primary bugaboo of many politicians and economists, with fiscal policies usually oriented to keeping inflation low. Combined with the decades-long stagnation of working-class wages, Walker’s wage-limiting, anti-union proposals threaten to not only cut workers’ wages, but to negatively affect working-class purchasing power and economic stability for generations to come.

Lest people revert to the tires trope of overpaid state workers, those affected span wage levels and occupations. Mike Imbrogno, a cook at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, is unionized and makes $28,000 annually–hardly a king’s ransom and scarcely bursting the seams of the state budget.

Governor Walker’s drastic and caustic proposals represent just the latest efforts to enact regressive economic policies based upon blame-the-unions rhetoric. It also pushed further into the background the notion that overall economic improvement and security can–and should–stem from policies that enhance the quality of life of working people, particularly those living closest to the margins of privation. All this during a period commonly termed “the Great Recession,” with high real unemployment rates; all this while the Working Poor Families Project has reported that about 28% of American workers make poverty wages.

To contact Governor Walker and make your feelings known about his anti-union efforts, you can e-mail his office at govgeneral@wisconsin.gov, call at (608) 266-1212, or send mail to Office of Governor Scott Walker, 115 East Capitol, Madison, WI 53702. This is something that affects not just workers in Wisconsin, but possibly all workers for, if this succeeds in a state like Wisconsin with a rich labor tradition, it can happen elsewhere.

–Jason Kozlowski

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