Tens of thousands of teachers and government workers will be without union contracts for the first time in decades on Wednesday.
That’s the day a new state law goes into effect prohibiting virtually all collective bargaining for an estimated 175,000 state, local and school workers.
But major changes in working conditions aren’t expected to happen for months, as public administrators write detailed policies on things like overtime, vacations, work schedules and discipline to replace negotiated contracts.
“We will continue to abide by all the labor contracts until there is something that takes their place,” state Department of Administration deputy secretary Cynthia Archer said Friday. “That’s not required by the bill, but there’s no other way to do it.”
Archer said work on the state “compensation plan,” which will cover pay and work rules, won’t be done until October.
Associations representing school boards and local government managers said they’ve advised their members to go slow with any changes in working conditions to avoid creating needless workplace unrest.
“We are services operations,” said John Reinemann, legislative director for the Wisconsin Counties Association. “People are our biggest asset. People like stability, and being arbitrary just because one can be is not a prudent management course.”
Some see cuts in August
The most immediate changes will be for at least 22,000 state workers, 4,000 municipal employees and about half the state’s teachers unions.
Their contracts have expired, so the law’s provisions technically apply to them right away.
Act 10 was approved by the Legislature, then held up by a court challenge that was finally dismissed by the state Supreme Court.
The law reduces public employees’ take-home pay to cover more of the costs of pension and health care premiums, ends payroll deductions for union dues, requires annual union recertification votes and forbids collective bargaining on things like vacations, sick pay, seniority preferences, overtime and grievance procedures.
The reduction in take-home pay goes into effect for state employees on their Aug. 25 paycheck, and for local workers without contracts in the first pay period that starts after Wednesday, Archer said.
The law won’t affect members of unions such as those in Madison or Dane County that have long-term contracts in place, until those pacts expire.
Marty Beil, executive director of the Wisconsin State Employees Union, said he believes state officials are happy to hold off on making major changes that would anger workers until after recall elections this summer for nine state senators who were targeted for their roles in the fight to pass the law.
“They don’t want to come out with Neanderthal kinds of changes on the workplace issues prior to the recalls,” Beil said.
If the state goes too far and does things such as creating unpredictable work schedules or eliminating seniority preferences, Beil said, workers will find ways to disrupt the workplace, and the unions will make full use of the courts.
Archer said politics aren’t slowing down the process. Managers are going through all the union’s expired contracts and meticulously deciding which provisions to change and which to include in a compensation plan that will cover pay and workplace rules.
“Even the governor would prefer to have this resolved sooner,” Archer said. “I’ve told the governor that this is a very tedious process. You’ve got to let the human resources managers do it right.”
Non-management employees will be able to have their say when public hearings are held on the plan while it is being considered by the Legislature’s Joint Committee of Employee Relations in October, Archer said. The committee must approve the plan, but unlike union contracts the plan doesn’t go to the full Legislature for a vote.
Elements of fairness
Republican Gov. Scott Walker proposed the stark reduction in collective bargaining rights as a means of cutting the cost of government, sparking mass protests at the Capitol in February and renewing labor union activism.
Walker’s press secretary said Friday that public workers would benefit from more flexible pay scales than those found in union contracts.
“Beyond just the positive fiscal impact, it will be good for workers because local units of government can now reward their best employees and provide compensation based on merit and performance,” Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie said.
But many employees are worried that their pay could be cut, vacation and sick days reduced and seniority rules discarded.
Taking away negotiated pay and working conditions makes it easier for workers to see management decisions as arbitrary, said Ed Sadlowski, field representative for 38 local government bargaining units in AFSCME Council 40.
“You’re taking the most fundamental elements of fairness, things that people have built over 50 years,” Sadlowski said.
Keeping unions alive
The largest public employee unions say they have begun signing up members for voluntary dues payments, which will be crucial to keep the organizations strong, but it’s too early to say how successful the effort will be.
Part of the immediate challenge is making it clear to workers without contracts that the union can still be vital for them in the workplace and in the political arena, said Rick Badger, AFSCME Council 40’s executive director.
The council represents 40 local government workers in the state outside Milwaukee County. About 4,000 of the 32,000 members are without contracts now, and another 9,000 will expire Dec. 31, he said.
Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s largest teachers union, has already canceled its fall convention and killed a membership dues increase for next year that had been planned previously, spokeswoman Christina Brey said.
Teachers are focused on this summer’s recall elections and a public relations campaign about how changes to planning time or staff-to-student ratios can affect learning, she said.
“With budget cuts we’re facing, those types of things are definitely on the chopping block,” Brey said. “We need to be very clear that what happens at the school board level and what happens with these policies is not removed from what happens in classrooms.”
Beil said it may take years, but he expects that Republicans will be removed from power in the Capitol because of actions such as the passage of the labor law. But Werwie said Walker is focused on “what is best for the next generation, not just the next election.”
State Journal reporter Matt DeFour contributed to this report.