Public Unions Ask Schools, Municipalities to Return to Bargaining Table
A union that represented about 100,000 employees in Milwaukee County, Milwaukee Public Schools, the City of Milwaukee and other municipalities sent letters Thursday requesting negotiations on new contracts, based on last week's court ruling striking down parts of the state's bargaining law for public workers.
Richard Abelson, executive director of District Council 48 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said the ruling Sept. 14 by Dane County Circuit Judge Juan Colas restored virtually all collective bargaining for municipal employees.
"We expect to begin bargaining," Abelson said. "If the state of the law changes, then we will obviously have to deal with a change."
Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen filed an appeal of Colas' ruling Tuesday and also asked that the ruling be frozen pending the outcome of the appeal. A hearing on delaying implementation of the ruling is Oct. 4 before the state Court of Appeals panel in Madison.
Abelson said unions would take into account changed economic times in renewed bargaining—if it happens any time soon. He noted that unions had offered to accept benefit concessions when Gov. Scott Walker pushed for approval of the collective bargaining law, Act 10, last year.
Mark Grady, deputy corporation counsel for Milwaukee County, said Thursday it appeared the Colas ruling, if it stands, would have very limited impact on the county.
"The Dane County ruling is not as broad as many believe it is," Grady said. He said the only portion of the ruling affecting county employees is the striking of the limit on the size of wage increases that could be bargained. Act 10 restricted most public employee bargaining to wages only and said any raises had to be at or below the increase in the Consumer Price Index.
Mary Bell, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state's largest teachers union, said some of the local unions affiliated with WEAC had begun the process of asking their respective districts to return to the bargaining table.
"There's no harm in sitting down to talk," she said.
Still, she agreed that everything is in a sort of limbo at the moment.
At least one teachers union started making moves this week. The president of the Merrill teachers union met Tuesday with the interim superintendent of Merrill Area Public Schools to discuss the possibility of returning to collective bargaining, the Wausau Daily Herald reported.
Meanwhile, local officials have to decide what to do as more unions begin clamoring to start up full-fledged bargaining. For instance, Madison Teachers Inc., which brought the lawsuit, has said it intends to try to renew negotiations immediately.
Dale Knapp, research director for the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, said that holding onto the higher contributions from union employees on their health and pension benefits was the most important thing for school and municipal budgets.
But, with the law struck down for the moment, school districts could still see questions if they have used their new authority under Walker's law to switch insurance carriers to save money or add an hour to teachers' workday. In districts where administrators work well with union leaders, those questions will be easier to handle than in schools where relations are tense, Knapp said.
"They're just worried with all the uncertainty over this," Knapp said. "You don't know what the next day, the next week is going to bring."
The City of Milwaukee is sorting through the decision, said Patrick Curley, chief of staff to Mayor Tom Barrett.
Before Act 10 was adopted, the city negotiated labor contracts that required anyone hired after Jan. 1, 2010, to pay more of their own pension costs. But the city agreed to pay pension costs for employees hired before then, and it continued to make those payments even after Act 10 was signed into law because of the legal uncertainties.
Because the city has been making those payments, Colas' ruling did not create an immediate hole in the city's budget, Curley said.
But city taxpayers may see increased costs if the ruling stands because it would reinstate collective bargaining. The city is reviewing the decision just as Barrett prepares to deliver his budget address Sept. 27.
Milwaukee County officials are reviewing the decision to determine its impact on the county budget and other matters.
"In the short term, we are moving ahead with our budget," said Brendan Conway, a spokesman for County Executive Chris Abele. "It would be really difficult at this point to start over."
Abele introduces his 2013 budget Sept. 27. This year's county budget counted some $22 million in pension and health care savings attributable to Act 10. Walker's bargaining law also left the door open to additional savings, should the county seek to shift further costs onto employees. Abele has kept mum on whether he'll propose that for next year.
The county's 350 nurses have a union contract that runs through next year, but last week's court ruling might indirectly affect them, said Candice Owley, president of the Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Health Care Professionals.
If the state is unsuccessful in immediately blocking implementation of the ruling while it files an appeal, the nurse's union may seek to get a three-year extension of its contract, Owley said.
Milwaukee Public Schools is in a different situation than many suburban districts that have already shifted from union contracts to school board-written employee handbooks because MPS had a four-year contract in place until the summer of 2013 when the governor's law passed.
To get the district's finances better under control, the Milwaukee School Board pursued changes under Act 10 that were to take effect once the contract of their largest bargaining unit of about 5,500 educators expires June 30, 2013. Some of those included furloughs and rollbacks to retirement benefits.
It appears those changes are void, and—absent another court ruling—the district will have to return to the bargaining table before it could take those steps.
Journal Sentinel reporters Erin Richards, Patrick Marley and Don Walker contributed to this report.
Vol. 32, Issue 05