Wisconsin Collective Bargaining and Democracy

The Wisconsin dispute over public-sector unions and collective bargaining raises some fascinating issues about American-style governance. We are witnessing a very telling American political drama, and whatever the ultimate result, we are stronger and better-educated for the transparency of the process.

Our form of government is, strictly speaking, republican, not democratic. That is, we elect the people who govern us, and then they are free, subject to the electoral process, to govern with much, or little, regard to majority opinion. We do not hold national plebiscites to decide legislative or regulatory issues. We delegate to our elected representatives — and to the bureaucrats appointed by our president — the power to make laws and rules, or not, regardless of our majoritarian view.

Thus, for example, Democratic party majorities in the House and Senate enacted a health care reform bill that was opposed, and continues to be opposed, by most Americans. Similarly, President Bush opted for his successful surge in Iraq, despite a majority of Americans (and much of the political establishment) favoring Vietnam-style withdrawal from Iraq at the time. Our “democracy” is frequently and successfully anti-majoritarian, and this paradox of democracy illuminates the role of democratic leadership.

Opinions are like… well, you know what they’re like, and everybody’s got one. Opinions may or may not be well-formed or well-informed, but they gloriously matter nevertheless. In the aggregate, they tell the democratic leader whether he or she is popular, or whether he or she confronts a challenge of education. And interestingly, a significant number of opinionated people, whose opinions are measured so often poorly by polls, care more about a demonstration of leadership or about the fairness and transparency of the process, than about the actual breezy opinion they express.

A Midwestern Republican governor confronts a recession economy, persistent unemployment, and a budget crisis. He cuts taxes and spending. Protesters erupt on the state capitol lawn and decry the “draconian” cuts. The governor is demonized, compared to the standard repertory of evil, and given no chance of reelection. His standing in the polls plummets. Republican legislators are frightened. But he persists.

That was John Engler in Michigan 20 years ago. The state’s economy improved, the budget went back into the black in a big way, and Engler was re-elected, twice, with large margins.

Whatever their opinions, Americans respect difficult choices and resolute decision-makers who make them.

So what does Governor Walker now confront in Wisconsin? Public-sector unions and their supporters in the Democratic party say they’ll take the “hit” of contributing to their health care and pensions in a manner that leaves them still better off than their private sector colleagues — but they won’t budge on “collective bargaining.”

“Collective bargaining” — the ability to get back next year what you surrendered this year — begins to look like the compromise point. “Collective bargaining,” after all, isn’t a fiscal issue, right? Well, yes it is. From the governor’s website, these examples of what collective bargaining yields:

  • No Volunteer Crossing Guards Allowed

A Wausau public employee union filed a grievance to prohibit a local volunteer from serving as a school crossing guard. The 86-year-old lives just two blocks away and serves everyday free of charge.

Principal Steve Miller says, “He said, you know, this gives me a reason to get up in the morning to come and help these kids in the neighborhood.”

But for a local union that represents crossing guards, it isn’t that simple. Representatives didn’t want to go on camera but say if a crossing guard is needed, then one should be officially hired by the city.

  • $6,000 Extra for Carrying a Pager

Some state employees, due to the nature of their positions, are required to carry pagers during off-duty hours to respond to emergency situations. Due to the collective bargaining agreements, these employees are compensated an extra five hours of pay each week, whether they are paged or not.

For an employee earning an average salary of $50,000 per year, this requirement can cost more than $6,000 in additional compensation.

  • Arbitrator Reinstates Porn-Watching Teacher

A Cedarburg school teacher was reinstated by an arbitrator after being fired for viewing pornography on a school computer. The school district ultimately succeeded in terminating the teacher only after taking the case to the Wisconsin Supreme Court at great cost to the taxpayers.

  • “Outstanding First Year Teacher” Laid Off

Milwaukee Public Schools teacher Megan Sampson was laid off less than one week after being named Outstanding First Year Teacher by the Wisconsin Council of English Teachers. She lost her job because the collective bargaining agreement requires layoffs to be made based on seniority rather than merit.

Informed that her union had rejected a lower-cost health care plan, that still would have required zero contribution from teachers, Sampson said, “Given the opportunity, of course I would switch to a different plan to save my job, or the jobs of 10 other teachers.”

  • Union Opposes Cost-Saving Lawn Mowing Program

As a cost-cutting measure, Racine County began using county inmates to cut the grass in medians and right-of-ways at no cost to the taxpayers. A county employee union filed a grievance indicating it was the right of government workers to cut the grass, even though it would cost the taxpayers dramatically more.

  • A Year’s Worth of Pay for 30 Days of Work

Under the Green Bay School District’s collectively bargained Emeritus Program, teachers can retire and receive a year’s worth of salary for working only 30 days over a three-year period. This is paid in addition to their already guaranteed pension and health care payouts.

  • The $150,000 Bus Driver

In 2009, the City of Madison’s highest paid employee was a bus driver who earned $159,258, including $109,892 in overtime, guaranteed by a collective bargaining agreement. In total, seven City of Madison bus drivers made more than $100,000 per year in 2009.

“That’s the (drivers’) contract,” said Transit and Parking Commission Chairman Gary Poulson.

  • $150,000 Correctional Officers

Correctional Officer collective bargaining agreements allow officers a practice known as “sick leave stacking,” Officers can call in sick for a shift, receiving 8 hours of sick pay, and then are allowed to work the very next shift, earning time-and-a-half for overtime. This results in the officer receiving 2.5 times his or her rate of pay, while still only working 8 hours.

In part because of these practices, 13 correctional officers made more than $100,000 in 2009, despite earning base wages of less than $60,000 per year. The officers received an average of $66,000 in overtime pay for an average annual salary of more than $123,000 with the highest paid receiving $151,181.

  • Paid-Time off for Union Activities

In Milwaukee County alone, because the union collectively bargained for paid time off, fourteen employees receive salary and benefits for doing union business. Of the fourteen, three are on full-time release for union business. Milwaukee County spent over $170,000 in salary alone for these employees to participate solely in union activities such as collective bargaining.

  • Surrender of Management Rights

Because of collecting bargaining, unions have included provisions in employee contracts that have a direct fiscal impact such as not allowing management to schedule workers based on operational needs and requiring notice and approval by the union prior to scheduling changes. Additionally, government cannot explore privatization of functions that could save taxpayers money.

  • WEA Trust

Currently many school districts participate in WEA trust because WEAC collectively bargains to get as many school districts across the state to participate in this union-run health insurance plan as possible. Union leadership benefits from members participating in this plan. If school districts enrolled in the state employee health plan, it would save school districts up to $68 million per year. Beyond that if school districts had the flexibility to look for health insurance coverage outside of WEA trust or the state plan, additional savings would likely be realized.

  • Viagra for Teachers

The Milwaukee Teachers Education Association (MTEA) are trying, by lawsuit, to use a policy established by collective bargaining to obtain health insurance coverage for Viagra. Cost to taxpayers is $786,000 a year.

  • Unrealistic Overtime Provisions

The Department of Corrections, by virtue of a collectively-bargained provision, allows correctional workers who call in sick to collect overtime if they work a shift on the same day. Cost to taxpayers is $4.8 million.

Collective bargaining may currently be popular as a compromise point — bit its fiscal impact is poorly understood. It’s no big surprise that public managers cave to the foregoing nonsense: it’s taxpayer money. That’s what makes this political drama so interesting, as taxpayers come to understand, well or poorly, how they’re getting the shaft.



10 Responses to Wisconsin Collective Bargaining and Democracy

  1. Snoring Dog Studio says:

    Arrgh. I feel like a damn ping pong ball in my views about support and lack of support for unions. This extra information you provided outrages me. I don’t like Walker’s tactics and his cozy relationship with the Koch brothers, but these special considerations enjoyed by the union seem quite undemocratic. I also believe that difficult times require difficult decisions. Some of them really hurt. The antipathy that many people feel toward unions has much to do with the sense that union members are enjoying privileges that they do not – and in many of the incidents you cited above, these privileges are designed to exclude the freedom of others to take jobs. They’re designed to put un-earned money in the pockets of union members at the expense of the state. They’re designed to permit benefits that people in the private sector have to go without or pay for themselves. Arrgh again. As to your discussion about democratic vs. majoritarian – it’s interesting – I had that conversation yesterday (not expressed as lucidly as you did). What confuses me is this: the politician is elected by a majority who supported that person because the politician said, “I support your views. I’ll go to work supporting those views.” But in many cases, and in Walker’s, he appears to be going against the majority who elected him as well as the majority of Wisconsinites. Isn’t that at least a violation of their trust? And why then, do so many politicians rely on polls to govern, if their job is to do what they want to do instead of what the electorate wanted?

    • Those are exactly the interesting questions I was teeing up SDS. Thanks. Sometimes leaders believe in a right thing to do, and do it regardless of polls. The rest is political history. Sometimes the leaders are vindicated, as in the example of John Engler I cited. Sometimes they are not. Sometimes they’re re-elected. Sometimes they’re not. Our political system holds politicians ultimately accountable to the people, but they’re not obliged to make every decision with reference to the polls, and they shouldn’t. Indeed, if they did, budget crises would virtually never get resolved. As you aptly state, difficult times require difficult decisions. In an earlier post, I noted a poll in Wisconsin that failed to register majority support for any specific example of budget-cutting. In any event, it’ll be interesting to see what Wisconsin looks like a year from now. No predictions here!

  2. Informative article. The unions already agreed to the cuts. When it’s time to renew their contracts, they can revisit those issues above. If Walker is so anti-union, why aren’t the police, firefighters, and state troopers exempt? It would make sense if they were included. Right now, it just looks vindictive.

    • Thanks Spinny. I think part of the problem with public-sector collective bargaining is an imbalance of power and incentives. Public sector employees typically perform vital services, which are state monopolies, meaning the people can’t go somewhere else to get, for example, police or fire protection. Moreover, the public-sector manager is using taxpayer money — often to be most accommodating to the very people whose very rich and very powerful union will then support him or her in the next election. The big losers in this game are the taxpayers.

      That said, I agree with you about police, firefighters, and state troopers. I’ve said before I don’t understand that exemption. I think it was a mistake.

      • Snoring Dog Studio says:

        I think that the police, firefighters and state troopers exemption wasn’t thought through very long and hard. But as far as I can tell, Walker wanted to exclude “first responders,” being concerned that they would walk out on the job if they were included in the bill. However, some Milwaukee officials don’t agree with the exemption at all. http://www.620wtmj.com/news/local/117172213.html

      • I can see where people are coming from with the monopoly thing, but I think it brings us back to the jobs being those that a lot of people won’t/can’t do. Obama said, “We’re not gonna convince the bravest Americans to put their lives on the line as police officers or firefighters if we don’t properly reward that bravery.”

        In the $150K correctional officer example, I agree that is a lot of money. There are 13 of them getting that much. I know the number shouldn’t matter, but take into consideration that the starting pay for correctional officers is $15/hr. What they go through for that pittance is sometimes unbelievable – getting bodily waste thrown at them. Sorry TMI, but many people would be willing to go through that.

  3. Paul Grubbs says:

    This is politics as usual. I would like to see our president follow through on his promise “to put on some comfortable shoes and march” with the unions. He chooses not to keep his promise because his federal employees do not have the privilege of collective bargaining. Collective bargaining is not a right. Most of us do not have the power of collective bargaining. Citizens have no constitutional “right” for collective bargaining. All but about five states are going broke. Our country is going broke regardless of what Michael Moore says. Governor Walker was elected on a platform to bring spending under control in Wisconsin even if that meant the end of the union’s power to bully their state with collective bargaining. Unions are afraid that this will lead to the end of their ability to force union members to pay dues that are used for political purposes. Unlike our president Governor Walker is making good on his promise. Our president should “go to school.”

  4. Steve Ball says:

    In my opinion, you/we are talking about public unions. Not those in the private sector. I think the primary negotiation tool of unions is work stoppage until their demands are met. I can’t abide a union that threatens to not put out the fire in my house, or protect my property and family, or teach my children, until their demands are met. I therefore can’t abide public sector unions. This may be a fiscal issue with most. Not for me. The concept of collective bargaining in the public sector can’t be accepted. IMHO/WADR

  5. Pingback: Playing by the Rules in Wisconsin « The Prince and The Little Prince

  6. gman says:

    Corrupt, despotic regimes cannot exist without the political support of a segment of the population. Whether it be Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Moammar Gadhafi in Libya or Kim Jon Il in North Korea, the system is basically the same. In all such oppressive countries, the regime supporters enjoy certain benefits from the government in return for their support. These benefits can be in any of many forms, from direct cash payments to lucrative licenses to government granted monopolies which are granted only to the regime supporters. In all cases, the top regime cronies get a percentage of the profits to enrich themselves at the people’s expense. Its no different in so-called communist countries.

    But even in democracies we have the same situation, but to a much smaller scale. We have political parties who are supported by their political base. In most cases, the people who benefit the most directly are the unions and businesses who provide the most in campaign contributions and other forms of help in getting the various politicians elected. Labour unions are promised higher wages in return for their support, while business and individuals are promised lower taxes for theirs. In many countries such as Australia, direct cash rebates and payments are given for support of individuals. It really is quite open bribery.

    In studying the situation in Wisconsin and other states where government worker unions are battling proposed changes to the status quo, I see much the same situation as with corrupt regimes. In this case, the union members are the privileged segment of the population, while the Democrat politician is the “Gadhafi”. In return for their support, the unions are granted benefits and privileges that the general population does not get:

    • Higher wages
    • Better health care plans
    • Better working hours
    • Much better pensions

    Just like the corrupt foreign regime, these benefits come from the government coffers. In other words, its from money which comes from and belongs to – the people.

    These benefits are obtained through a system known as “collective bargaining”. This system can work well for both sides when it’s a business on the other side of the bargaining table. But when it’s a politician sitting on the other side of the table, this system is completely flawed as we see by the lopsidedness of government workers benefits compared to private workers. The politician is beholding to trade union with whom he is “negotiating” with – the very same trade union which was largely responsible for getting him or her elected. This is a very different situation to that of a union negotiating with a company, which at the end of the day must be profitable in order for the union workers to have a job at all. The politician is negotiating with other people’s money (taxes), which as we all know politicians seem to think there is an unlimited amount available.

    The end result is the only logical result to such a system: Budget deficits and government debt – which the larger population of taxpayers are responsible for. Meanwhile, the smaller population of “regime supporters” (unions) are earning more money and retiring with nice, cushy pensions. And just like in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and other places, when the general population has had enough and rises up against such unjust favouritism, we see the favoured regime supporters come out fighting for their “rights” – the right to plunder the other 95% of the population. One wonders how they justify this in their minds? They say its about “worker’s rights”, but what gives them the right to use tax money to get better benefits than the general population, pushing the government into debt? Do we really want and need government unions anyway? With all of the Federal and State labour laws in America, why would they be needed anyway? The only reason I can see is to benefit the union workers at the expense of the taxpaying American.

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