Decades of attack on the trade union movement have succeeded in lowering the union membership rate for private sector workers to only 6.9 percent. The union membership rate for public sector workers, while also in decline, still remains significantly higher at 36.2 percent.
Not surprisingly then, anti-union forces are seeking to take advantage of the current economic crisis to destroy public sector unionism as well. Perhaps the most aggressive attack is taking place in Wisconsin, where newly elected governor Scott Walker is basically seeking to end all collective bargaining rights for Wisconsin state, county and municipal workers. The bill Walker is pushing in the Republican dominated state legislature begins:
Under current law, municipal employees have the right to collectively bargain over wages, hours, and conditions of employment under the Municipal Employment Relations Act (MERA), and state employees have the right to collectively bargain over wages, hours, and conditions of employment under the State Employment Labor Relations Act (SELRA). This bill changes MERA and SELRA with respect to all employees…
It then goes on to say: “This bill limits the right to collectively bargain for all employees who are not public safety employees…” Here are some examples of what the bill would do:
- COLLECTIVE BARGAINING. Make various changes to limit collective bargaining for most public employees to wages. Total wage increases could not exceed a cap based on the CPI unless approved by referendum. Contracts would be limited to one year and wages would be frozen until a new contract is settled. Collective bargaining units are required to take annual votes to maintain certification as a union. Employers would be prohibited from collecting union dues and members of collective bargaining units would not be required to pay dues. Changes effective upon expiration of existing contracts. Law enforcement, fire employees and state troopers and inspectors would be exempt from the changes.
- STATE EMPLOYEE ABSENCES AND OTHER WORK ACTIONS. Authorizes appointing agencies to terminate any employees that are absent for three days without approval of the employer or any employees participating in an organized action to stop or slow work if the governor has declared a state of emergency.
- QUALITY HEALTH CARE AUTHORITY. Repeals the authority of home health care workers under the Medicaid program to collectively bargain.
- CHILD CARE LABOR RELATIONS. Repeals the authority of family child care workers to collectively bargain with the state.
- UW HOSPITALS AND CLINICS BOARD AND AUTHORITY. Repeals collective bargaining for UWHC employees. State positions currently employed by the UWHC are eliminated and incumbents are transferred to the UWHC Authority.
- UW FACULTY AND ACADEMIC STAFF. Repeals authority of UW faculty and academic staff to collectively bargain.
- PENSION CONTRIBUTIONS. Require that employees of WRS employers and the City and County of Milwaukee contribute 50% of the annual pension payment. The payment amount for WRS employees is estimated to be 5.8% of salary in 2011.
- HEALTH INSURANCE CONTRIBUTIONS. Requires state employees to pay at least 12.6% of the average cost of annual premiums.
Walker has even announced that he is prepared to call out the National Guard to repress union resistance.
Indiana and Ohio are moving in the same direction. For example, bills are moving through the Indiana legislature to outlaw teacher collective bargaining. Here is what the Senate bill (which is considered better than the House bill) proposes:
- Repeal of collective bargaining by allowing school boards to unilaterally adopt their own prior offer if teacher bargainers don’t agree to the board’s last offer before the contract expires eliminating continuation of the existing (status quo) contract until a new one replaces it and negating any bargaining progress made in current negotiations.
- Repeal of the statute that bases salaries on teacher qualifications (credentials) and experience;
- Prohibition of bargaining on school calendar, teacher evaluation and dismissal procedures and criteria; school restructuring and contracting out dual-credit and other post-secondary-credit courses;
- Prohibition of inclusion of discussible items in the contract;
- Deletion of working conditions from discussible items;
- Repeal of the majority teacher organization’s right to appoint all teacher representation on school committees. Administrators would appoint all representatives to school committees.
- Prohibition of teacher-bargained input into school restructuring options for schools failing to meet state or federal accountability standards; and
- Expansion of reasons for which an employee can be suspended without pay.
These bills are generating opposition. In Wisconsin some 15,000 workers turned out to demand that the legislature reject Walker’s bill. Here is a short video that gives a sense of the turnout.
Significantly, several past and present Green Bay Packer players have issued a public statement in defense of Wisconsin public sector workers.
Wisconsin does face a serious budget deficit of $3.6 billion. But Walker is unwilling to acknowledge that this deficit owes much to years of corporate tax cutting (some 2/3 of all Wisconsin corporations currently pay no taxes) and a devastating economic crisis generated by a structually unbalanced economy. His attack on public sector unions has far more to do with breaking the unions than it does closing the budget gap. His plan to make workers pay half the costs of their pensions and at least 12.6 percent of their health care premiums would save the state no more than $30 million by June 30 and $300 million over the next two years.
Make no mistake about the seriousness of what is going on right now—all workers lose if this anti-union offensive currently underway in several states succeeds. All unions need to acknowledge that this attack is part of a bigger class war against working people and organize accordingly. If they fail, we can expect that the political forces moblizing to gut social programs and empower corporations will be emboldened to push ever harder.