Reversals in Wisconsin

Governor seeks major benefit cuts for all U. of Wisconsin employees -- and elimination of the newly won right of faculty and academic employees to unionize.
February 14, 2011
 

Governor Scott Walker on Friday proposed a "budget repair" bill that may fix the state budget but could do some real damage to the personal budgets of faculty members and others who work at the University of Wisconsin System.

The plan proposes changes in benefit contribution requirements that would cost university employees in excess of 5 percent of salaries and could reach as high as 10 percent, according to some faculty advocates.

And the governor has proposed killing legislation enacted in 2009 that gave the University of Wisconsin faculty and academic staff the right to unionize. The 2009 legislation has already led to votes by faculty members at two University of Wisconsin campuses to unionize with the American Federation of Teachers, and organizing drives (some already leading to dates for union votes) within much of the rest of the university system. The drives in Wisconsin have been one of the major successes for the academic labor movement in recent years -- and the governor's proposal would effectively eliminate those victories.

While Walker needs legislative approval for his plans, he is in a strong position politically. The governor is a Republican, and last year's elections saw him succeed a Democrat and the Legislature switch from Democratic to Republican control. While union leaders are vowing to fight the proposals, many Republicans voted against the union measure in 2009 to allow collective bargaining. Walker has argued that these and other measures are needed to deal with a major deficit facing the state. (For other state workers who have unions, Walker is proposing that collective bargaining be limited to base wages, and not be permitted on any other issues.)

The Bill for Benefits

University officials are saying that there is some good news in the governor's plan in that it does not envision further furloughs. University of Wisconsin employees have faced eight furlough days in each of the last two years, effectively cutting salaries by about 3 percent.

But the additional benefits changes being proposed would result in larger cuts to take-home pay. The most significant change would require all university employees to contribute 5.8 percent of their salaries to the state pension fund. Many university employees have to date not been required to make any contribution and the largest contributions this year still fall short of 1 percent of salary, so these payments would be a significant, new deduction from paychecks.

On health insurance, employees throughout the university system will have to pay 12.6 percent of the cost of monthly premiums, Currently, university employees contribute between 4 and 6 percent of costs.

Kevin P. Reilly, president of the university system, and Charles Pruitt, president of the Board of Regents, released a statement Friday in which they noted how frustrating these proposed cuts must be to those working in higher education. "We have asked you to teach record numbers of students. You’ve done it. We have asked you to help more of those students remain in school and graduate on time. You’ve done it. In every instance, you’ve stepped up to the challenges, all the while receiving reduced salaries, due to mandatory state furloughs," Reilly and Pruitt said.

The message went on to argue, as a number of other public higher education systems have been doing during the economic downturn, that the university system must be "freed from outdated laws and regulations" if it is to be nimble enough to compete for the best academic talent.

A rally -- with the Valentine's Day theme of "Governor Walker, Don't Break My Heart" -- has been organized by teaching assistants at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, who plan to deliver cards to the governor's office asking him to show some more love to the university system.

The Governor vs. the Union

A separate part of the governor's plan would revoke the collective bargaining rights given to University of Wisconsin faculty members and other academic employees in 2009. Organized labor in Wisconsin had been pushing since the 1970s for such legislation.

The measure led to a major organizing drive by the Wisconsin AFT. To date, the faculties at the university campuses at Superior and Eau Claire have voted to unionize, and union elections are scheduled for faculty members this month and next at UW campuses at La Crosse, River Falls, Stevens Point and Stout. Another vote has been scheduled to unionize non-faculty academic employees at Superior.

Bryan Kennedy, president of AFT Wisconsin and an adjunct faculty member in Latin American studies at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, said Saturday that the governor's proposal was "an attack on workers." He said that the governor was trying to weaken the right to unionize. "This is the state saying to employees: 'This is what you get, sit down and shut up.' "

Kennedy said that the strong votes for unionization and the momentum at other campuses turning in union authorization cards to set the stage for elections demonstrated that the academic employees at the university want collective bargaining.

The AFT has ties to moderate Republicans, Kennedy said, adding that he hoped to win enough support from them to block the governor's plans. "This is a pretty slimy piece of legislation," he said.

Kennedy praised the university administration for not having worked against the union, and said that this attitude had resulted in "positive campaigns" by the union, not attacks on the management of the university system.

A spokesman for the university system said that it would be neutral on the governor's proposal to take away collective bargaining rights from academic employees. "If the faculty wants to fight for that, it is theirs to fight for," he said.

Faculty members are in fact speaking out. Greg Downey, a professor of journalism and mass communication, and of library and information sciences, wrote on his blog that the proposed cuts to benefits and the proposed ban on collective bargaining for faculty members were in fact related. He argued that whatever difficult choices need to be made about the budget benefit from systems that give all parties a meaningful voice.

"Over my decade of paid service to UW-Madison, I've seen democracy in action every single day on campus. In every unit and every discipline, our faculty and staff are able to collaboratively prioritize, discuss, debate, and decide issues about the proper course of university education, the proper administration of always-scarce funds, and the proper rewards to hard-working peers. It's not always pretty, and it's never easy, but it's something that the whole organization holds dear; and in the end, it works," he wrote. "It works not because it's the most efficient way of making decisions, but because it's the most transparent and legitimate. It works because it forces those holding opposing views to express and defend them in civil and evidence-based ways. And it works because it brings a basic dignity to a process where, all too easily, those with greater power or fancier credentials or higher salaries could simply have their way. That's what I think we will lose if, as an unrelated side-effect of changing the benefits payment structure of state workers, we throw out the very possibility of collective decision-making. We will lose an important mechanism to preserve the serious and honest participation of state workers, not only in shaping the character of the organizations that they serve, but in shaping the legacy that this state leaves to its next generation of civil servants -- and citizens."

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