In The News
Union court action saves Christmas for 108 county workers and leads to broad new proposal for new year
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Labor Press
Acting on a complaint by the union and its lawyer, a circuit court judge on Dec. 15 granted a temporary injunction that kept Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker from wiping away 108 county jobs 10 days before Christmas.
The threat of a permanent injunction, in which the union was seeking County Executive Scott Walker and key supervisors to testify under oath
about their motivations in the layoffs, helped trigger a tentative deal Dec. 26 on the eve of a decisive second hearing before Reserve Circuit Court Judge Robert Pekowsky, who issued the temporary cease and desist against the county exec's layoffs.
Requiring ratification by union members and approval of the County Board, the county and the union announced the outline on Dec. 27. The proposal would prevent layoffs or privatization on any occupied jobs through 2008 as long as state or federal funding and existence of the service continued.
The union's previous offer to cut back pension and sick time benefits was approved, as was its sliding payment scale for different health plan pricing. The union push for a wellness program will reportedly move forward in 2008, and wage increases of reportedly 2% will be applied retroactively for 2005 and 2006.
If all sides approve, the deal sets aside not just the Pekowsky hearing
but an arbitrator's impending binding decision between the proposals from the union, AFSCME District Council 48, and the county, which only hired a labor negotiator in December though the existing contract ended two years ago.
Ratification votes by union members will take place over the next few weeks. If the membership approves, the deal goes to the County Board, probably by early February.
The journey to the contract was long, confusing, fitful and required agile fighting by AFSCME to break the jam.
On the Friday of the temporary injunction, Walker had private companies literally waiting in the wings to take over at the end of shift the affected jobs in courthouse security and general maintenance. Walker would have also eliminated jobs in the parks.
His effort came despite the reality that the County Board had already booted such privatization efforts by Walker from the 2007 budget it overwhelmingly passed -- and the fate of AFSCME's county workers (more than 3,600) was already in the hands of an arbitrator evaluating offers from both sides.
Insiders to the talks said the union had offered several health cost initiatives as well as reductions in the pension sweeteners it had never asked for but were presented to all county workers by the previous administration.
In court Dec. 15, the county was already outsourcing. It turned to a team of private lawyers to argue that Walker should be allowed to fire the workers. But it was the union’s lawyer, Mark Sweet, who successfully argued that the layoffs were an illegal lockout, timed to put the economic hammer on AFSCME despite the established labor bargaining procedures.
Pekowsky, a reserve judge asked to step in by a Milwaukee judge who works regularly with county workers and feared the appearance of a conflict, is known as a conservative “by the book” judge, court insiders report.
On a human level, 108 county residents were now able to pay for groceries and buy their kids presents. On a political level, the favorable decision for AFSCME didn't disguise how the union was being treated as pawn in the power and financial struggles between Walker and the county board.
By going to court -- and arguing that the layoffs were a direct affront to and violation of collective bargaining laws (coercion rather than mandated give and take) -- the union moved itself from a pawn to a crucial player.
The County Board had demonstrated this fall that it had the votes to deeply change Walker’s budgets -- and had the reality of his failed past budgets to spur it on. The county executive had clearly delayed settling the issue of a new contract for its largest union because of his political concerns -- not just an eventually aborted race for governor but his marriage to a “property tax freeze” even as parks, services, courts and buildings crumbled around him.
The County Board, as correctives to cuts in service and exhibiting skepticism about the exec’s managerial grip and privatization beliefs, had rewritten the 2007 budget Walker submitted and passed it by a veto-proof majority. Rather than negotiate with the County Board over individual items in the budget, as had been tradition, Walker decided to veto the whole thing, sending out to a novelty shop for a big VETO stamp and calling in media cameras.
The media recognized all this as "political theater," an effort to make the board take the heat, but the supervisors remained unmoved, overriding Walker's veto easily.
But in their budget was a carrot and stick to try to influence AFSCME 48 in bargaining ahead of the arbitration decision – about 128 union positions were funded only through March.
Board members conceded that they had only partly funded these county positions to “entice” the union to accept cuts in a new labor contract. Richard Abelson, executive director for AFSCME District Council 48, called it "blackmail" – but he also had some hard words for the county executive's office, which had not hired a labor negotiator for months, apparently hadn't even read the union's proposals and opted for the long process of arbitration rather than continue to work with the union.
“There was no one with the power to negotiate for the county for months,” Abelson pointed out. He also noted how many proven avenues for lower health costs the union had already wrapped into its proposal.
One board member suggested this behavior was typical of Walker. Rather than make tough decisions at the contract table, he was willing to push the whole process into arbitration, so the arbitrator would get the blame. Rather than work with the board on the budget, he vetoed the whole thing to make everything wrong in the county seem the board’s fault.
Seizing on the partial funding of county positions in the budget, Walker immediately announced he would lay off these workers and privatize their jobs because the county board had not guaranteed a full year’s coverage.
It was then, on Dec. 13, that AFSCME went to court, arguing not just the obvious – that the firings flew in the face of what the county board was attempting – but also was an illegal lockout during labor talks that were already under arbitration. Cutting the jobs was tantamount to putting a gun to the union’s head, saying bargaining made no difference in keeping jobs.
On Dec. 15, Pekowsky sided with the union’s arguments, but asked both sides to further the arguments Dec. 27. It was hardly coincidence that the county moved seriously to negotiations after that court decision and approved a tentative deal before the court would hear further arguments.