On collective bargaining rights, Walker goes too far

Whatever you think of Gov. Walker's budget fix, his call for an end to collective bargaining rights for many state employees unnecessarily pours gasoline on what already was a red hot fire.

As I've stated on these pages, Walker's calls for state employees to contribute more to their pensions and fringe benefits is not out of line, especially with a $137 million shortfall in this biennium and a $3.6 billion structural deficit heading into 2011-13. But to deny workers the right to collectively bargain over benefits or work rules overplays his already-strong hand before he even sat down to negotiate with state employee unions.

In fairness to Walker, Wisconsin state Employee Union Executive Director Marty Beil hasn't exactly offered an olive branch, but media bluster isn't exactly something new in labor-management relations. Then again, if the Governor is serious about this plan, and I have no doubt he is, there won't be much of a relationship at all.

It now appears that Walker has the votes to pass this plan as presently structured, although it’s a close call in a State Senate controlled by his own party. I suspect there is stronger support for other parts of the plan, under which state workers would contribute 5.8% of their pay to their pension plans, and at least 12.6% of the cost of their health care premiums. That’s still a lot better than workers in the private sector, where thousand have made benefit concessions in order to keep their jobs.

Adding to the bitter pill Walker is asking state workers to swallow is that state troopers, police, and firefighters would be exempt. Walker says it's because potential job actions by these public safety employees would compromise public safety. This has led to charges of political favoritism, but in truth most of the public safety unions endorsed Tom Barrett in last fall's gubernatorial campaign.

I base my opinion on a belief, perhaps naive, that when push comes to shove, state employee unions will realize that it's better to accept benefit concessions than force the Governor to lay off workers, therefore weakening the size and strength of the unions, not to mention whack the Madison economy. There is no reason that ground given in economic hard times cannot be recaptured when the economy regains traction, especially if collective bargaining rights are maintained.

Walker's rationale for wanting to remove these rights is that the state has nothing to negotiate with. Fair enough, but in the future, when the economy improves and state coffers begin to fill, state workers should have the right to negotiate to regain what they have lost. When the state is in better financial shape, I hope they do.

The strength of the union's bargaining position is always in direct proportion to the strength of the state's finances, and right now both are weak. Perhaps Walker would have had to resort to stripping workers of collecting bargain rights somewhere down the road (and soon), but at least come to the table to see if their negotiating posture matches the public rhetoric. If the Legislature balks at this controversial part of the budget fix, the Governor will have some egg on his face, and he might well have to come to the table in a weaker position than he started with. He is right about the need to fix the state's fiscal mess, but in denying collective bargaining rights to some but not others, the focus is taken off whether the unions have a firm grasp on economic reality.