Public employees seek a voice at work that they’ve lacked for 10 years

By: - March 2, 2021 7:31 am
Act 10 protests at the Wisconsin Capitol 2011. Photo by Emily Mills CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Act 10 protests at the Wisconsin Capitol in 2011. (Emily Mills | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

For tens of thousands of Wisconsin workers who lost most or all of their rights on the job a decade ago, one provision in Gov. Tony Evers’ second biennial budget stands out: Evers’ proposal to restore collective bargaining for public employees.

Better compensation is one reason, say state and local workers, who argue that their pay hasn’t kept up with the marketplace, creating staff shortages and turnover and straining workloads for many public employees, including teachers, social workers and corrections officers. But lagging wages are only part of the picture.

Looming larger in conversations with a cross section of government employees eager to see the governor’s proposal enacted is its potential to bring back the opportunity to have a say in the way they do their work.

“It would just ensure that teachers across our state would have a certain level of voice in what our environment looks like,” says Ben Hubing, a high school history teacher in suburban Milwaukee. Collective bargaining “doesn’t mean that we have absolute power. It doesn’t mean that we get everything that we want or that we have total control. It means that we have a say in what it means to be a teacher.”

Correctional officer Chad Birkholz recalls when, under state union contracts, employee representatives and prison system administrators met regularly.

“Those were our opportunities to be sitting down with the management,” he says. “We were able to bring forth concerns, and they in turn brought their concerns back to us.”

For the last decade, those opportunities, if they have existed at all, have been subjected solely to the discretion of the people who have managed the municipalities, state and local agencies or local schools and school districts. The enactment of Act 10 in 2011, passed by the Republican-led state Legislature at the initiative of newly elected Gov. Scott Walker, stripped all but the most rudimentary union rights for most public employees. (The law left intact most of the labor rights of police and firefighters, along with transit workers.)

Act 10 limited public-sector unions to negotiating about wages and only for increases up to the rate of inflation. Benefits were off the table. So were working conditions.

‘Eviscerates the union’

Even more than the economic parts of Act 10 — which unilaterally increased what public employees had to pay out of pocket for health care and retirement benefits and imposed a ceiling on what their unions could negotiate for wage increases — the ban on negotiating working conditions gutted the rights of state and local workers.

Frank Emspak, retired, University of Wisconsin School for Workers
Frank Emspak

“It eviscerates the union,” says Frank Emspak, professor emeritus in the Department of Labor Education at the University of Wisconsin. “When you make it illegal to say you can’t talk about any of that stuff —  as opposed to just discouraging it — you will eliminate the organization when those issues are unaddressed. And that is the real meat and potatoes of day-to-day work in the union.”

Evers is calling on lawmakers to re-establish collective bargaining rights for any state and local government workers who deal with the public “or large populations” and those who are involved in “maintenance of public works.”

The provision is one of several that would reset the balance of power by getting rid of hurdles to union representation in the public sector and throwing out the state’s so-called Right to Work law — which forbids unions from requiring the workers that they represent to pay dues to help cover the costs of being represented.

The administration’s Budget in Brief document enumerates the pro-labor provisions as part of a list of items to bolster the state’s economy — along with aid to support small business, promote workforce development and provide economic development as well as measures to bolster the University of Wisconsin system and other technical and higher education projects.

The labor rights provisions were included after a campaign of calls and emails to the governor’s office, according to union activists.

Safety in the pandemic

The ban on negotiations over working conditions has been part of the public sector workplace for a decade. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, underscored the sense of powerlessness that some workers have experienced because of that limitation.

“I can say to a politician, ‘I want my job to be safer,’” says Paul Spink, a child care certification specialist in the Department of Children and Families and president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) in Wisconsin. “But there’s no way I can have a binding conversation with my manager about safety.”

Joseph McCartin
Georgetown University Professor Joseph McCartin

Joseph McCartin, executive director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University, says COVID-19 highlights the lack of power workers without unions have to bargain over safety — which Act 10 forbids for Wisconsin public employees.

“As workers deal with the pandemic, you can see the importance of not having the ability to really bargain over safety issues,” McCartin says. “And what we’ve found in the past 12 months is, agencies like OSHA, or even the CDC has not been able to have a presence in workplaces to really be able to guarantee safety.” Unions, where they exist, have been able to do that, he says.

But not in Wisconsin.

“Lots of intelligent people can agree or disagree on reopening schools, how it should be done and what level of risk and safety should be implemented,” says Hubing, the high school history teacher. “But as it stands, teachers are just told ‘This is what the environment at our school is, take it or leave it — work here or don’t. Really good teachers — those that have health issues, or concerns or family members that are at risk — have had to make really tough decisions … ‘Do I leave a job that I really love? Because I don’t feel safe there.’”

Protection for speaking up

Pandemic safety has been far from the only issue, however.

Jeff Myers is a chemist in the state Department of Natural Resources and president of the Wisconsin Science Professionals, part of the American Federation of Teachers -Wisconsin.

Before Act 10 took effect, the union and agency administrators met to work out conflicts over pay, health and safety issues and worker treatment on the job.

Scientists working for the state deal with contentious issues, Myers observes, especially in areas such as environmental regulation and contamination from pollution of the air and water.

“We had provisions in place that would protect those workers to be able to speak as to their expertise in their area of expertise,” he says. “And if they came into some type of disciplinary action as a result of doing their job, we had protections in our contract.”

The ability to meet with agency administrators and address conflicts, whether over health and safety, issues of compensation or the treatment of workers on the job, he adds, were all part of “making the government work better.”

Karly Caven teaches sixth grade social studies in Superior and is a member of the Superior Federation of Teachers (part of the American Federation of Teachers-Wisconsin). The union has maintained a formal role there. But across the state, she says, the ability of teachers to influence their working conditions has been blunted without broader collective bargaining rights.

“Better working conditions for teachers means better learning conditions for students,” says Caven — and teachers have been advocates for families with greater need in the community. “For years, we have worked harder with less to provide support for students and their families. So I think that collective bargaining would add another avenue to support those learning, economic and mental health needs for our students and their families. This in turn provides a safer and more productive workplace environment for all students.”

Nurses’ union campaign

While Act 10 severely limited union rights for most public employees, the 2011 law ended them entirely for one group in particular — workers at the University of Wisconsin Hospital & Clinics Authority. 

The authority had not been part of state government since 1996, when it was created to separate it from the university. Enabling legislation that created the authority included recognition of collective bargaining for employees. A provision in Act 10 eliminated those rights altogether.

In December 2019, nurses at UW Hospital, assisted by the Service Employees International Union’s health division, petitioned the authority’s board to recognize the union as their representative. Acknowledging the Act 10 restrictions, they said they would not seek collective bargaining but instead sought a “meet and confer” relationship through which their representative could discuss issues with hospital authority management.

In the months that followed, they maintained and expanded a public campaign to grant their petition. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nurses active in the campaign at UW said that as the area saw an initial surge from the coronavirus, they pivoted to focus on the safety of their coworkers in health care and pressing for issues like improved access to personal protective equipment (PPE). 

Now that the virus has been diminishing and the pressure on hospitals from the pandemic has eased, they’re returning their attention to the issues that prompted them to pursue their campaign originally.

Shari Signer, an inpatient nurse at UW Hospital, began working there 17 years ago, when the nurses had union representation.

“With the union, we fought really hard to keep our staffing ratios safe,” Signer says. A shift to a “lean staffing” approach — “which means you do more work with less people,” she says — prompted the renewed union drive. “The numbers of people that they have at the hospital have been drastically cut.”

Nurses supporting the union drive contend their concerns and those of the public align when it comes to subjects such as more robust staffing numbers to enhance patient safety.

“This is really in the public’s best interest to help support public sector workers to get our voices back and to get our union back,” Signer says.

Signer says union supporters hope that Evers’ embrace of collective bargaining in his budget will send a signal to the UW Hospital authority management to rethink the question of conferring with the union. 

At the same time, she and others who had campaigned for the budget to acknowledge collective bargaining are well aware of Republican lawmakers vows to strip those provisions from the budget as soon as they take it up.

“I was concerned to hear about that,” says Alex Dudek, a nurse who has treated COVID-19 patients at UW Hospital. 

“It’s really frustrating as a frontline health care worker to have heard those same legislators call us heroes throughout the pandemic and praise our work,” Dudek says, “to then turn around and actively remove something that is supposed to be supporting us during this pandemic, supporting our ability to advocate for our patients…. “Iif they are going to continue to call us heroes, and I just hope that they will treat us with basic respect, and allow us to have a voice.”

Union recertification

Under Act 10, some public unions have retained formal representation rights — which require a union to undergo an annual recertification vote. To pass the vote, it’s not enough for the union to gain a majority of the ballots cast.  

Instead, under restrictions that are part of Act 10, the union must garner the approval of more than 50% of everyone that the union represents in the bargaining unit — including people who did not vote in the certification election at all. Evers’ proposal would end the annual recertification requirement.

Some unions — many of them representing public school teachers — have gone through that exercise each year and retained an official foothold. Although they can’t negotiate over anything other than wages, in some contexts they have been granted an opportunity to offer input on employee handbooks or other policies.

Other unions, however, made the strategic choice not to go through the certification process at all, reasoning that the minimal rights that unions retained under Act 10 were too weak to warrant the effort that following the procedure would require. Such has been the case with the American Federation of State and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which keeps its role as a vocal representative for workers in state and local government, but chose not to certify at the state level.

In some school districts and some areas of state government, there have been at least occasional attempts to foster employee input. But employees say those opportunities are at the whim of management.

Birkholz, the correctional officer, recalls one prison chief who “was more as a dictator — he was going to tell us [how to do things], he wasn’t going to talk to us.” He has seen others who held employee-management committee meetings and appeared interested in being more open.

“But the management decides who’s going to sit on the committee,” he says. “And the things that they discussed were fluff — they weren’t the real issues.”

Moreover, Birkholz adds, even if an individual manager is more receptive to hearing employee perspectives, those ideas reach no further than one facility or perhaps one part of an agency.

“Just because it’s going that way at one institution,” he says, “does not mean that’s happening for the state.”

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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, along with related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.

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