In The News
Act 10 set to demolish fair play at the polls
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Labor Press
Posted Dec. 21, 2011
This should be a story about how workers do their jobs and don’t pay much attention to partisan politics – unless forced out of self-preservation.
But the story is turning into a frightening Wisconsin first, an unfolding affront to one of America’s most basic principles of fair play -- the simple power of the ballot box.
That concept of majority rule is about to die in Wisconsin depending on appeals that never should have been necessary given the clear union victory in early December in a phone-in election at the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission (WERC).
There have been 212 such elections, most won overwhelming by the unions and only a handful of losses – for similar sideline sitting as occurred among the support staff at Brookfield’s 11 Elmbrook schools, a unit of WEAC.
But Elmbrook is the first case where an absolute majority of all members of the workforce favored recertifying the unions -- and could wind up losing anyway. And what a punishment for workers! So preoccupied with their own jobs and family lives they didn’t realize how, in Gov. Walker’s warped world vision, just sitting out one election they never knew about could destroy their voice at work. Trust me, there are a number of support staff hitting their heads against the wall today because they either didn’t know about the election or didn’t bother to call in. And this is an ostensibly conservative district.
The pending overturn of majority rule would also unfortunately up-end -- to the point of broad distrust by both unions and management – the WERC’s long record of fair and responsible dealing. Yet the state agency, to be fair, is only being obedient to the “rule of law.” in this case to the rule of extreme law known as Act 10, railroaded through by Walker and his GOP followers.
So blame the authors of this poisonous feast, not WERC or its longtime general counsel, Peter Davis, though Walker just turned his position into a political (not civil) appointment, which further muddies the pubic viewpoint. In truth, that might influence the next general counsel, but it hasn’t budged the detailed, scrupulous approach represented by Davis. He has no choice, as we’ll explain.
Walker’s rules limiting public employees’ bargaining rights have some largely unpublicized provisions – and it is not partisan exaggeration to point out how Act 10 goes way past economic issues to deliberately cripple basic rights for a union to represent a clear majority of a workforce, even when the union has the votes.
It is bad enough, given longstanding democratic principles, to penalize those who take the trouble to vote over those who don’t. But that is just the first condition largely unmentioned in discussions of Act 10 –any recertification election counts all the members of the workforce, not just those who vote. And further, that anyone who doesn’t vote is counted as a vote against the union and for the management.
Of course, there are hundreds of reasons someone doesn’t participate in these special phone votes, including indifference to the union or indifference to politics in general. . They also have to know about the phone election and they have to connect it to their own work situation and understand consequences no one took the trouble to explain.
The only WERC requirement? Post the election phone number and days on the workplace bulletin board. You don’t have to be a genius to figure how many workers fall through the cracks – even good workers who dash in to work without reading the bulletin board and dash out to shop or make the PTA meeting.
If you believe Walker designed Act 10 knowing all that, you are certainly not alone. It may sound like Birmingham under Bull Connor. But the news media hasn’t exactly been hollering the realities from the rooftops. Nor some other basic contrasts in how Walker thinks to how the real world works.
If every Wisconsin voter who didn’t bother to show up at the polls in 2010 were counted as a vote against Walker, he would have lost by about 2 million more votes. In fact, no elected official would ever win with such a condition. As it is, Walker only got about 20% of the eligible Wisconsin voters, but he interpreted that as a mandate to smash both unions and the simple majority rule.
No wonder so many large unions, including all of AFSCME, have refused to submit to this annual recertification, and it has little to do with whether they could win. Why should they bother? The unions have to pay for the cost of the election – as much as a $2,000 fee for a large union – and victory only allows bargaining on a slim portion of wages. As a further reward, you have to submit to the same humiliation and costs a year later.
Over at Elmbrook schools (where the teachers voted overwhelming to recertify, incidentally), here’s what happened to this WEAC support staff unit of 156 workers. Seventy-nine called in to vote for recertification. A mere eight voted against. But all 69 who failed to call in are counted under Act 10 as “no” votes
Still, even counting the missing as against, the union won. The final tally was 79 to recertify and 77 against, a clear majority even on a Walker-tilted adding machine.
Only those kicked in the head by David Koch could believe that not voting is a sign of opposing a union. I mean, being in a union doesn’t require the daily obeisance of being an Episcopalian or a Muslim– that’s only in Walker’s strange vision of unions as a religion, not the way everyday people create dialog when needed with those in power.
Yet he has created an even more demeaning condition – the supermajority, guaranteeing that the larger the union, the higher the hurdle. So even when you win you may not have (the issue at Elmbrook).
Everyone knows that at the public polls or at the NLRB, it only takes 50% plus 1 to win an election. Act 10 insists on 51%. That means a union of 1,000 employees must get 510 knowing that every vote that doesn’t show up is a no. (Do you now understand why so many large unions declined to submit?).
Many WEAC unions have agreed to Act 10, not just because the unions are popular with the members but with parents, even conservative ones who are starting to realize how Act 10 has hamstrung their teachers from helping students. Teachers can’t use their union bargaining rights to arguer for smaller class sizes, more textbooks, lesson preparation and grading time, or even meetings with parents. Most parents realize how much teachers are already doing on their own time without pay and they are offended to discover how within Act 10 the teachers no longer have a unified avenue to fight for their charges or complain when power plays are too extreme. Remember, teachers and students share the same workspace, the same issues of bad heating, poor safety response and neglected playgrounds.
The Elmbrook case is technically in litigation. The support staff through WEAC point out the obvious – that rounding up to 51% is the practical solution and reflects the reality of a two vote win. To do otherwise spits on the American experience.
But the three-member board at WERC that decides has two Walker appointees, including its new president. The future could bring a case in which a larger union vote clearly a majority is also under 51%. It is naïve to believe the decision lies with the board and not at the governor’s mansion and he has shown no hesitation about making Wisconsin the laughing stock of the nation (as well as once again the likely target of a lawsuit).
But those are situations Walker and his policies invite – until the real majority of Wisconsin on both sides tells him to grow up.