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Wisconsin Passes Bill to Decrease Union Costs Despite National Protests

The spotlight around the country is on public sector unions and Wisconsin is the epicenter.  For years, union power went unchecked, leading to high budgets to pay for public employees.  Now the states are pushing back the only way they can.  The end result is a dramatic change in the collective bargaining landscape for public employees in Wisconsin and possibly across the United States. 

Like most states, Wisconsin is having trouble balancing its budget.  In response, the Wisconsin legislature recently passed a bill which removes healthcare and other benefits from collective bargaining, and puts a limit on the amount of salary increases unions can demand.  The union would still be able to bargain collectively over all other aspects of the workplace, including workplace conditions and leave time, but their economic power is dramatically reduced. 

So what prompted such dramatic action?  Costs for employee wages and benefits under their union contracts are exorbitant.  As the system stands now, Wisconsin taxpayers spend $57 to every $1 contributed by an employee to an employee’s pension fund.  Wages are higher than for comparable private sector employees and employee contributions to health insurance are lower than in the private sector.  The bill requires public sector employees to pay just over 12% of their health care costs – up from 6% currently.  The bill also requires employees to pay 5.8% of their salary to their pension.  Many employees currently contribute nothing.  None of these changes are lowering benefits; they are only asking the employees to contribute more towards what they currently receive.

Republicans in the Assembly originally passed the legislation 51-17, and the bill moved into the state Senate.  If this legislation did not pass, the Governor was going to be forced to eliminate thousands of jobs.  However, Democrats decided the best way to deal with this issue was to leave the state and refuse to discuss the bill at all.  Instead of using political tactics, such as a filibuster, in an attempt to sway the opposing party, Democrats are avoiding the subject all together.  Without any Democrats present, the state Senate is not permitted to discuss, let alone vote on, any legislation dealing with finances. 

On March 10th, the Republican Senators were forced to cut all the fiscal items out of the bill and vote on the remaining items.  In an 18-1 vote, the bill was passed.  The bill moved back to the Assembly, which passed the revised bill.  Shortly after the bill was passed, Wisconsin Democrats filed lawsuits claiming Republicans did not follow proper political procedures in voting on the bill.  A Wisconsin judge issued a temporary restraining order, prohibiting the implementation of the bill until she could hear the case.  Hopefully the issues surrounding this bill will be resolved shortly, and the state can continue its plan to ease its budget problems. 

Meanwhile, around the country, various states are trying to pass similar legislation to even the playing field between powerful unions and their state.  As an offshoot to this controversy, several states, such as Pennsylvania, introduced Right To Work legislation, which would give employees who work in unionized businesses the right to choose whether or not they want to be a union member.  As it stands now, employees in those states are forced to join unions and pay dues. 

Brody and Associates regularly advises its clients on all labor management issues and provides various training programs.  If we can be of assistance in this area, please contact us at info@brodyandassociates.com or 203.965.0560.