Collective Bargaining Hovers Over Wisconsin Recall Elections

By Sean Cavanagh — July 19, 2011 3 min read
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Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s name isn’t printed on the ballot today. Neither are his controversial policies that limited teachers’ collective bargaining powers and cut state funding for schools.

But the first-term Republican’s record in office is certain to be invoked continually over the next month, during a series of state legislative recall elections. Three races—two primaries and a general election—are being held today.

Nine incumbent state senators face recall elections in Wisconsin. Six of them are Republicans who have been targeted to varying degrees because of their support for Walker’s policies, including the measure that reduces the collective bargaining powers of educators and many other public employees. That proposal drew some of the largest protests in the state’s history after it was unveiled in February, and Walker later signed it into law.

Three of the incumbents facing recalls are Democrats, who Republicans contend deserve to be removed from office because of their obstructionism during the debate over bargaining. At one point, all 14 of the state’s Democratic senators left the state to prevent the GOP majority from voting on the bargaining measure.

The recall elections are staggered over the next month, with the last one scheduled for Aug. 16.

In the general election, Democratic state Sen. Dave Hansen of Green Bay faces Republican David VanderLeest. Hansen, in an interview, said residents of his district are frustrated with Walker’s and the Republican-controlled legislature’s approval of deep cuts for education.

“They are defunding education to a great degree,” said Hansen, a former private school teacher. “We’re going backward, not forward.”

Walker last month signed into law a two-year spending plan that closed the state’s estimated $3.6 billion budget gap but cut $800 million from public schools. According to Wisconsin’s education department, 410 of the state’s 424 public school districts will receive less school aid for the 2011-12 school year than they did in the previous year.

The governor counters that the state needed to make tough choices to reduce spending in a state with a budget that was far out of whack. He also argues that the changes the state made to collective bargaining will lower school districts’ costs—and the burden on taxpayers—because they will be able to negotiate more favorable contract provisions with unions.

Walker’s office says the provisions in the bargaining law are already paying off, citing instances where local governments have cut spending, in some cases by squeezing new concessions from public employee unions.

Jonathan Steitz, a candidate in one of today’s Republican primaries, agrees with the governor’s view that the changes, while controversial, will boost the state’s economy.

Too often, in school districts and local governments, “you don’t have a fair negotiation” between unions and management, Steitz said. “You’ve got people on one side of the bargaining table, bargaining with people they helped elect.”

A 37-year-old lawyer, Steitz faces Fred Ekornaas in today’s GOP priimary. The winner will face incumbent Democratic state Sen. Robert Wirch in the general election on Aug. 16.

Steitz says Gov. Walker could have done a better job on the collective bargaining and budget cuts of “getting in front of everything and explaining why these changes were necessary.” But he also predicts the governor’s policies will lower the cost of government and attract new businesses to the state.

The Wisconsin Education Association Council, a 98,000-member teachers’ union, is backing all nine Democrats in the recall elections. But Steitz says he has met many educators on the campaign trail who have told him they support Republican positions.

“I have won over younger teachers, who feel the union isn’t representing them,” Steitz said, adding: “There are a lot everyday taxpayers who don’t believe their money is being well spent.”

By tomorrow, we’ll know whether he gets to make that case to voters in the general election.

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.