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Can They Really Do That?

Walker and the Republicans declare war on workers

Dec. 15, 2010
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It came as no shock to observers of Gov.-elect Scott Walker that he came out swinging against state employees shortly after his election. After all, Walker has treated Milwaukee County employees like public nuisances who don’t deserve to be paid.

But Walker’s recent statements about taking the extraordinary step of “decertifying” unions sent shock waves throughout the state. Walker’s declaration of war on workers was echoed by his Republican allies who will control the state Legislature come January and applauded by the editorial board of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

And it made folks wonder: Can they really do that?

Here are some facts to consider:

The governor cannot “decertify” unions.Labor experts consulted for this article are completely baffled by Walker’s threat to “decertify” unions. “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” one prominent labor lawyer told the Shepherd.

Unions working in the private sector may “decertify” themselves, but only if the members themselves call for it. The employer cannot decertify a union.

Likewise, the governor cannot “decertify” unions in the public sector. The right of public employees to organize and collectively bargain is set out in state statutes that have long been supported by members of both political parties. The statutes can be changed, of course. But the state Legislature—not the governor, acting unilaterally—would have to make that change. Since the Republicans will be in charge of both houses of the state Legislature, some sort of change may be on the way, even if it isn’t full “decertification” of unions.

Should the Legislature abolish public sector unions? That depends on whom you ask. Republicans are walking into a $2 billion-plus budget deficit and Walker has promised to slash billions of dollars in taxes for Wisconsin’s wealthiest residents and corporations, adding greatly to an already serious deficit. Republicans may try to slash state employee compensation to make up for the budget shortfall. Threatening to take away their right to bargain fair contracts may be a hollow threat to try to get concessions from the unions or it may be a very real threat. We’ll see what happens in 2011. (Walker’s transition team did not respond to the Shepherd’s request to comment for this article.)

But would abolishing these unions be a wise thing to do? After all, public sector employees form the backbone of the state’s infrastructure, whether they are public defenders or prosecutors, biologists, nurses, instructors or state troopers. The state is a significant employer, especially in sparsely populated areas where state jobs (and prisons) provide steady, family-supporting wages for thousands of workers.

Depressing the wages of state employees—who already take home less than their private-sector peers—would have a ripple effect throughout the state’s economy as these workers end up with less money to spend at local businesses. Private businesses would be in a stronger position to lower wages as well, since public-sector jobs would be less attractive to job seekers.

Would a legislator vote against the interests of his or her constituents and abolish unions? Again, it depends on how far Republicans are willing to go in their war on workers.

Can the state take away long-standing items that are bargained in good faith?Republicans like state Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) have proposed taking away items that unions typically negotiate with the state as a way to reduce costs—items like health insurance, for example, or pensions.

The Legislature—not the governor—can do so by changing state law.

But Republicans may want to remember that the state is supposed to negotiate concessions with the unions to get what they want. (Milwaukee County residents already know that Walker failed to negotiate concessions while he served as county executive and instead simply wrote labor concessions into his 2010 and 2011 budgets, which is not legal.) And if they come to an impasse, then the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission (WERC) can make the decision for them.

The tough talk about workers in the media may be a way to frighten union representatives to give up a lot during their next negotiations.

Will Wisconsin become a “right to work” state?That idea has been floated by state Rep. Robin Vos (R-Burlington), and Walker has supported such legislation in the past.

First, though, a clarification about the term “right to work.” This policy doesn’t give employees the “right to work” at a particular job site. It gives employees the right not to pay union dues even though the union bargains for them. (One labor expert consulted for this article called it “legalized loafing.”) It’s a way to weaken unions by depriving them of dues that could be used to beef up their bargaining power or even to campaign for or against candidates.

Right-to-work laws have been established in 22 states, mostly in the South, like Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama and Texas. Those states have notoriously low wages, fewer worker protections and less-safe workplaces.

The state Legislature—not the governor—would have to pass laws to make Wisconsin a right-to-work state. The legislation could affect both private-sector and public-sector workers.

But, again, would that be a wise thing to do? It would reward corporate contributors to Republicans’ campaign chests, but it would also spark a backlash among voters who would be especially keen on preserving their protections during this war on workers.

Can Walker, acting alone, change labor contracts or laws?Not likely, but Walker has violated labor laws as county executive, so he may feel that he’s above the law while serving as governor. Walker doesn’t have to act on his own, though, since the state Legislature will be dominated by right-wing Republican leaders who seem to be on the same page as the governor-elect. That said, labor experts have wondered if Walker could try to act alone—and violate state law—given that the attorney general, J.B. Van Hollen, is a fellow conservative Republican.


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