Wisconsin Collective Bargaining and Democracy
March 8, 2011 10 Comments
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.