In The News
Stall tactic delays county common sense move to bargaining table
NEWS UPDATE: The needed super-majority was achieved at the county board special meeting June 10 – in fact, 14 not just 13. But that was a parliamentary trick. The 14th was Joseph Sanfelippo, whose other stall tactics were rebuffed, relying on the collusion of the chair, Lee Holloway. He called for a revote to block approval until June 23 of just talking across the bargaining table for both the nurses union and AFSCME 48. It was all really about Madison and what might happen with the Walker bill. But our story reveals why several conservative districts are getting more for taxpayers by simply moving ahead now on union contracts.
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Labor Press
Posted June 8, 2011
On June 7, as the Milwaukee County Board was stymied by ordinance complexities, new County Executive Chris Abele stepped in with a letter urging the board to “enter into negotiations with AFSCME District Council 48.”
Calling Abele’s letter a “clarion call to act for the taxpayers,” Sheila Cochran, secretary-treasurer of the Milwaukee Area Labor Council, led other community leaders in asking a simple question. “If the county exec is in favor of negotiations, where is the County Board?”
Given that a clear majority on the board actually agrees with Abele, that question crystallizes a mystery to be answered at the next full board meeting – and the Milwaukee community intends to bring a throng of witnesses at 1 p.m. Friday, June 10, at the Courthouse.
“I’m truly disappointed in the board leadership,” said Cochran, pulling no punches in her conversations with constituents and public officials. “Now that Scott Walker is gone, and is demonstrating his lack of leadership on the entire state of Wisconsin and now that the eyes of the world are upon us, can’t we in Milwaukee County go forward?”
The move back to the bargaining table would normally require 10 of the 19 supervisors, a margin that exists. But because of past maneuvers and delaying tactics it now requires a suspension of the rules and a two-thirds vote by the full board.
The issue Friday is whether the 13 votes needed are there, and it is close. “It shouldn’t even be close,” said Cochran, “because this is simply about management talking to workers without pre-conditions. Only fools would vote against that simple democratic concept.”
AFSCME 48, representing some 3,500 of the county's 5,400 employees, has been working since 2009 under an old contract -- but Walker added excessive unilaterally imposed furlough days, which the union warned then was against the law since it was an issue of bargaining. The courts in May agreed. It is another example of administrative bungling by the previous county executive, now governor, this one destined to cost county taxpayers $4.6 million – and counting.
The amount owed to its workers by the county is climbing because of the lingering contract impasse and mounting back pay from illegally imposed furlough days. The situation is a potent warning to the state of how Walker edicts tend to run afoul of federal and judicial rules. Indeed, Cochran is not alone in wondering if county board members understand how state legislation works and why the promises being held out by Walker, if he succeeds in emasculating bargaining rights, will likely never come to fruition.
There are several reasons to act quickly, noted Abele in his letter to the board, citing not just the current $75,000 weekly cost of delay. “Waiting for resolution at the state level for just three months” – a likely guess of the legal picture according to veteran legislative observers – “could cost Milwaukee County taxpayers an additional $1,000,000.”
Abele noted that the he and the board are “committed to being a responsible steward of taxpayer dollars” and should be working for all the savings that can be achieved now but would simply disappear whatever the future.
And, he added, “as a strong supporter of collective bargaining, I greatly prefer negotiations with unions over government imposition of contract changes.”
He pointed out that AFSCME 48 had already agreed to the health and pension concessions facing state workers. But insiders have made it clear that it will take a return to the bargaining table to make AFSCME forgo the millions of dollars due it from the taxpayers. County coffers – about to be further decimated by Walker budget cuts to local communities, with a particularly nasty eye on Milwaukee – can hardly afford that, nor on wasting taxpayer money on farfetched legal appeals of the recent ruling.
A majority of the board readily supports a return to the bargaining table – without pre-conditions, as Abele also noted, making it clear that he would reject any deal not in the best interest of the county taxpayers. But supporters of bargaining discovered late Wednesday that they needed to up the number to 13 supervisors to suspend rules. So now community leaders and organizers will be watching the results carefully.
All supervisors face re-election in the spring of 2012. Only two, Lee Holloway and Lynne de Bruin, have announced retirement, and de Bruin is expected to support a return to bargaining. But while Holloway describes himself as someone who has “always
fought battles on behalf of unions,” he has been hangdog-miffed at his treatment in the media and lopsided rejection by voters in the March primary. So he is clearly leaning on committee chairmen to oppose the bargaining table efforts.
“Holloway appoints the committee chairman, which is always a perk,” noted a veteran county administrator, “so now he's threatening that any action that takes issues to the full board, even if right and politically smart, should be interpreted a personal affront to him as opposed as just an effort to get things done.”
“This is absurd,” said another supervisor who has long voted with Holloway but intends to vote for a return to the bargaining table – “as once Lee himself would have done,” he added.
In 2012, the county executive is also up for re-election, and the makeup of the state legislature and even the governor’s mansion may well have changed, so the decision to at least prefer bargaining to imperialistic decree is also of vital importance to county voters, which in Milwaukee means many families dependent on union incomes and even-handed treatment of public workers. That’s why the citizens are watching the results so closely.
There are a variety of reasons why a few supervisors have been blocking the concept of the bargaining table – hurt feelings from past encounters with unions or the electorate, blind allegiance to right-wing thinking, concern about procedure over substance, and so forth. But the primary one could be named “waiting on Walker.” Conservatives still believe that his approach at the state level will win despite what it has cost local taxpayers when he was heading the county.
The Walker bill making collective bargaining a crime for public workers beyond inflation-limited wages is now blocked in the court system because of how it was rammed through. It would eliminate the ability of workers to negotiate on benefits, shifts, general safety and more. It would outlaw deducting dues on government paychecks and it would force yearly decertification votes, actually requiring unions to deliver more than a simple majority of “yes” votes while counting every nonvoting workforce member as a “no.”
It is no secret that such criminalizing of workers would immediately be challenged in state and federal courts on a variety of precedents Yet if the state supreme court doesn’t let the bill go through quickly, his minions have threatened to quickly introduce it as a budget measure. They hope to do so quietly enough to escape the outrage in the streets that brought 70,000 to 100,000 protesters to Madison.
Despite the party’s public optimism, it is dubious if the GOP still has the votes. Some back-benchers Walker once counted on are peeling away or offering amendments such as changing decertification requirements to three years or letting unions negotiate for better safety. While Walker sought to exempt some law enforcement units – particularly those who supported him for governor – much of that has been wiped away by the legislature’s joint finance committee. These moves are “watered soup” to the unions but they are also a signal of GOP slippage.
Journalists and community leaders are also starting to notice a strong irony here – because Republican parts of the state seem freer to act more responsibly than Democrats on the Milwaukee County Board!
News accounts reveal how many of those local governments are scrambling to negotiate contracts with their public workers. These conservative Republicans recognize they are about to be double-whammied. The budget policies speeding through Madison rob not just big cities but rural and suburban communities and schools of essential state revenue. Their experienced number crunchers, many Republican stalwarts, point out to interviewers that even the meanest one-sided bargaining, which Walker seeks to impose, cannot begin to balance the losses. So these communities are dealing to make sure that the high morale and deep experience of their workforce will remain to help bail them out with ideas and innovation in the face of crippling state budget cuts. And that requires contracts with rights.
Milwaukeeans are demanding the same common sense from the county board, especially now that their newly elected county executive has pointed the way.