Project Milwaukee
1:41 pm
Wed December 14, 2011

Public Workers Bear the Brunt of Budget Woes

We now continue Project Milwaukee: State of Upheaval. All week, we’re exploring the impact of Wisconsin’s divisive political climate this year, mixed with a tough economy. Tuesday, we reported on some winners of the new Republican majority’s agenda, including business interests and social conservatives.

Today, we focus on entities that lost ground, the biggest – public workers. Gov. Walker’s budget required them to pay more for their health insurance and pensions, in order to ease the state deficit. The GOP went one step further in 2011, by stripping most public unions of all rights except to bargain for limited wage increases. As WUWM’s Marti Mikkelson reports, angered public workers are now part of a massive effort to recall the governor.

Public employee Sue Blaustein (left) helps circulate petitions to recall Gov. Walker.

The governor’s proposal to dismantle Wisconsin’s collective bargaining tradition sparked massive protests at the Capitol last winter. Talk of recalling the governor began as early as February. Now, nearly a year later, the effort is in full swing. Sue Blaustein is bundled-up outside a coffeehouse in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood holding a clipboard. A steady stream of people walk by, and several stop to sign her petition to recall Governor Scott Walker. Blaustein says she’s been waiting all year for this opportunity.

“It hits me very personally that Scott Walker saw fit to essentially bust our union. I would like to do what I can to see him dumped,” Blaustein says.

Blaustein has worked 21 years as a food safety inspector for the Milwaukee Health Department. She’s a member of AFSCME District Council 48 and says her local has decided it does not pay to recertify when its contract expires at year’s end.

“There is a material impact because our wages will not increase. Our contributions for our health insurance have gone up. I pay for a single plan and the cost has more than tripled per month so my take home pay, my net pay is going down. There are some other benefits that we’re losing. We have no bargaining power anymore,” Blaustein says.

Blaustein says the governor has no respect or sense of history for workers’ rights in Wisconsin. Modern-day union negotiating originated here, according to Cheryl Maranto, chair of the Business Management department at Marquette University. She says in 1959, Wisconsin became the first state to grant public employees the right to collectively bargain.

“I think it probably was our progressive history. There was something known as the Wisconsin School, which were a group of scholars at UW Madison coming out of the legacy of the War Labor Board after World War II. They were the think tank on labor rights and labor history and that also might have been a piece of it,” Maranto says.

Maranto says public sector unions grew and strengthened, partly because the jobs are local and not subject to outsourcing. Plus, she says, the unions won job security and great benefits for the public sector so it could attract top talent.

“If people can choose, do I want to work in a public sector job or a private sector job, the public sector systematically would get better workers if they had the better benefits,” Maranto says.

The public unions also gained massive political power with their increasing membership, usually supporting Democrats and their agenda. Today, about 30 states require collective bargaining for public employees. And while Wisconsin had been in the forefront of that movement, it has also now taken the lead in rolling them back.

Matt Warner expresses little sympathy. He’s a 39-year-old former truck driver and has seen workers lose ground in the private sector as companies have threatened to move if employees don’t sacrifice. Warner says it’s only fair public workers do the same.

“They’ve got their jobs but they’re going to have to give a little more to stay in there, that’s fine. I’ve been working in the private sector my whole life. I’ve been making concessions right and left. I had no say in it,” Warner says.

Warner insists the governor is carrying out voters’ wishes to slash government spending and hold down taxes. School districts and governments now set many work rules, and so far, have not made any noteworthy layoffs of public sector workers. Television viewers across the state are seeing an explosion of ads supporting Gov. Walker, such as this one the conservative group “Americans for Prosperity” has sponsored.

“We cut spending by asking government employees to contribute to their own pensions and benefits like everyone else and reining in abuses of collective bargaining privileges to put taxpayers back in control. Today, Wisconsin has eliminated its deficit…”

Meanwhile, the governor’s opponents are running their own ads, many upset he took the giant step of eliminating collective negotiating rights. Organizers claim they’ve collected more than half the 540,000 signatures needed to force a recall election in spring. Efforts are also underway to remove at least four GOP state Senators, in hopes of flipping control of the Senate to Democrats. Even if the recalls fail, Marquette University’s Cheryl Maranto predicts the tide will eventually shift again.

“I do foresee a possibility that eventually when the political pendulum swings back, that bargaining rights will be restored, perhaps with some changes. I think there will be kind of a resetting. There were some legitimate concerns, particularly in the area of health insurance,” Maranto says.

Democrats in the Assembly and Senate have introduced a repeal of Gov. Walker’s collective bargaining rollback. The plan sits untouched in committee.