Budget Woes Deal Blow to Public-Employee Unions

Faced with a $137 million budget deficit, Wisconsin needs to take drastic measures to cut costs. Republican Gov. Scott Walker set his sights on the pay and benefits of public employees. Government workers agreed to pay more for their benefits, contribute more to pension funds and accept pay cuts. But Walker called for something more drastic--amendments to the Municipal Employment Relations Act that would essentially bar most public employees in the state from bargaining collectively for benefits, vacations, overtime pay and work rules, all of which have been common features of union contracts since the state authorized public employees to bargain collectively in the 1950s.

As teachers, bus drivers and other government workers convened in the Capitol building in Madison to protest,
14 Democratic state senators fled the state to prevent quorum from being established to bring the legislation to a vote. While several senators reportedly holed up at a hotel in Illinois, Republicans in the state's House of Representatives passed the bill by a 51 to 17 margin, conducting the vote while House Democrats shouted that they weren't done debating. The bill passed and was signed into law on March 11. But on March 18, Judge Maryann Suni put a temporary restraining order on the law after a Democratic district attorney filed a suit alleging the Republican legislators violated open meetings laws.

"Governor Walker himself was elected by only 26 percent of those eligible to vote," points out Timothy Hawks, a partner at Hawks Quindel, which represents unions in Wisconsin. "[The bill is] intentionally designed to destroy labor organizations."

Currently, typical union contracts last two or three years. Under the budget repair bill, no collective bargaining agreement could last longer than one year. The bill would also bar municipal employers, except for police and fire departments, from deducting union dues from employee paychecks.

Adele Nicholas

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