Gretchen and I were just finishing breakfast Monday morning when she poked her finger at a story in the morning La Crosse Tribune: “This is important,” she said. “Think of it in terms of Act 10.”

By Act 10, she was referring to the bitterly contested legislation signed by Gov. Scott Walker in 2011 that took away negotiating power from public sector unions, including their ability to negotiate working conditions. The story she pointed to had to do with working conditions at Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls, where job vacancies are forcing employees to take long shifts.

Union officials told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that the staffing shortage creates risks for both employees and inmates. Operation of the youth prison is being investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Wisconsin Department of Justice for allegations of abuses at the prison, including neglect of children, intimidation of victims and witnesses, and possible civil rights violations.

Although the story didn’t make the connection, Gretchen raised the question of how things might have been different if it hadn’t been for Act 10.

Troy Bauch, who represents workers for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 32, was quoted in the story on the high rate of job vacancies – almost one in five positions – and the effect on morale of the overtime situation.

Bauch told me in a phone interview that prior to Act 10 he had an “open and productive dialog” with management with the possibility of bringing concerns to the “highest level of state government.” Since Act 10 undercut that relationship, he said, there has been a “serious change” in respect and cooperation. He said he had to resort to contacts with elected officials and the media to finally bring the problems at the prison to public attention.

And it’s just the beginning, he said, of the effects of Act 10 on public administration in the state. He described Lincoln Hills as a “flash point.”

He said staff members were intimidated when they tried to bring concerns to management, and he was powerless to do anything about it.

Rick Badger, executive director of Wisconsin AFSCME, was quoted in January in The Guardian: “A lot of the problems we believe go back to the loss of workers’ voice, not having formalized labor-management relations. ... If people feel they’re not safe at work, they should be able to speak to supervisors without fear of retribution.”

Bauch said he was hopeful when Jon Litscher was named corrections secretary when the previous secretary resigned. Bauch said he worked with Litscher previously when Litscher was secretary during the Tommy Thompson administration. But he added it was not a good sign that Litscher had promoted Wendy Peterson to superintendent recently even though some 75 employees had signed a petition urging that she not be given the job because she was not qualified. Bauch said he respected Litscher, but added Litscher was working for Walker, not Thompson.

Act 10, which was also known as the Budget Repair Bill, has saved taxpayers money in the five years since it was enacted – some $5 billion, according to a study by a free-market think tank. But it might be exacting another cost from taxpayers we are less able to quantify if the Lincoln Hills/Copper Lake fiasco is any indication of how management/labor relations are breaking down in Wisconsin.

Dave Skoloda is an award-winning journalist and former owner and editor of the Onalaska Community Life and Holmen Courier.

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