Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker Opens Door To Limiting Police, Firefighter Unions

Two and a half years after mostly sparing police officers and firefighters from his union restrictions, Gov. Scott Walker said this week he is open to the idea of limiting their ability to collectively bargain.

Such a move would go against one of the few sets of unions where he has been able to find support. The unions for Milwaukee officers and firefighters endorsed Walker in 2010 and the 2012 attempt to recall him from office.

Walker and his fellow Republicans in the Legislature in 2011 all but eliminated collective bargaining for most public workers, but did not extend most of those restrictions to police and firefighters. That was because of concerns that governments around Wisconsin could not protect the public if officers or firefighters went on strike or took other job actions, Walker told the Governmental Research Association gathering on Monday.

Now — more than two years since the law known as Act 10 has been operating — Walker said he would be willing to put those restrictions in place for police and firefighters.

“I think now for those areas, having seen that the world didn’t come to an end for all your municipal employees and county employees, there might be a greater opening going forward because they’d say, ‘Hey things worked out,'” Walker said.

Under Act 10, most public-sector unions can bargain over base wages but nothing else. That makes it impossible for the unions to negotiate over issues such as working conditions, overtime, health care, sick leave and vacation. In negotiations over wages, they can seek raises that are no greater than the rate of inflation.

They also face much tougher standards to achieve recognition from the state. For instance, in annual votes they must win 51% support from all workers eligible to be in the union, not just those voting.

Jim Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, said he saw Walker’s comments as an attempt to position himself for a 2016 run for president.

“This appears to be some kind of unfortunate presidential trial balloon,” Palmer said.

While Walker did not put the same collective bargaining constraints on police and firefighters, he did take away their ability to negotiate over the design of their health insurance plans.

Palmer said that has allowed local governments to ratchet up pressure on unions at the bargaining table by threatening to give them worse health coverage. There is no good policy reason for further limiting their ability to bargain, he contended.

Palmer said he does not believe Republicans who control the Legislature want to revive 2011’s fight over unions, which resulted in massive protests and two waves of recall elections.

“I really believe not just state lawmakers, but the public as a whole, is glad the turmoil of Act 10 is behind us,” Palmer said. “I would be surpised if lawmakers wanted to return to that environment.”

Unlike the Milwauke police union, Palmer’s group endorsed Walker’s opponent — Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett — in the 2010 and 2012 races.

Barrett said Monday that the unequal status of public employee unions was unhealthy for local government.

“It is not good management to have a situation where firefighters are pitted against sanitation workers, and it is not good management to have a situation where police officers are pitted against public health nurses and librarians,” Barrett said.

Under the new system, union participation for general public employees has dropped off considerably. Walker argued Monday that was because unions like the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees offer little benefit to workers.

“We saw a huge drop in AFSCME in Milwaukee because they’re just basically taking their money,” Walker said. “I mean, and you saw similar things going on with the teachers union. A teacher in Milwaukee, they take about $1,500 (a year) of his or her paycheck. That’s a lot of money. It’s money you can spend on your kids, you can prepare for college or whatever else might be out there.”

He went on to say some private-sector unions do provide workers benefits because they offer services that go beyond collective bargaining, such as job training.

Christina Brey, a spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Education Association Council, said Walker was wrong. Her union represents teachers across the state.

“We’re seeing members are finding more value than ever from their union membership,” she said, adding workers need to stick together to fight for fair policies for teachers and students.

At the time Act 10 was debated, unions warned that Walker might spare police and firefighters for the time being but would eventually go after them.

“We know that his intention is to destroy unions and it’s just not going to happen,” Brey said.

From The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel