By Jason Stein
As Gov. Scott Walker builds a likely presidential campaign on his firm stand against unions, he isn't highlighting one part of his record: his looser stance with the labor groups backing him.
Scrutiny of Walker's record will intensify in the coming months as his presidential prospects burn brighter. On Wednesday alone his political operation hired workers in the key early state of New Hampshire and scored a poll showing him with a lead over other Republicans in the equally crucial state of Iowa.
Only a few state employee unions and a modest number of local unions have fared well under the Republican governor's leadership since 2011. Whether in contract negotiations or rewrites of state law, the unions that have done the best are often the same unions that endorsed Walker in his three elections for governor.
The Wisconsin Troopers Association, for instance, is one of the few labor unions to support the governor in his 2010 campaign, his 2012 recall election and his 2014 re-election race. Its members played a key role in guarding the state Capitol during massive labor protests four years ago and state troopers also staff the detail that protects Walker and his family.
Almost all other state worker unions had their bargaining authority stripped under Walker's signature legislation known as 2011 Act 10 and then had their members' take-home pay reduced by roughly 10% because of cuts to health care and pension benefits.
The State Patrol union was spared both of those blows and still negotiated a roughly 17% pay increase for its members in a contract with the Walker administration. But Walker flatly rejects questions about whether he helps the unions that help him, saying that many police unions have opposed him and still done better than other public employees.
"This is ridiculous. To say there is a pattern of favoritism is inaccurate. Governor Walker has been transparent and straightforward on each of the issues you listed," Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick said. "...There is no pattern."
It's true that some unions, like local police and firefighters, have opposed Walker and still been spared at the state Capitol. It's also true that in all of those cases at least some of those local unions -- for instance the police officers and firefighters of Milwaukee -- did back Walker on the campaign trail.
The Republican governor, for instance, has tried to hold up passage of right-to-work legislation that would prohibit private-sector unions and employers from requiring workers to pay union dues. That would affect many unions that opposed Walker and some that supported him, such as the union representing heavy-equipment operators.
Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton), whose district includes many public employees, said he sees politics at work.
"It certainly appears there's some favoritism. If one police unit is looking at a 17% increase and others aren't -- you tell me," Erpenbach said. "I just take a look at how other segments of public service are treated with respect to pay, and they're not in the same stratosphere."
The troopers' agreement was negotiated two years ago and ratified one year ago by the union but not disclosed until after Walker's successful re-election in November. The contract terms were revealed this week by Walker's fellow Republicans in the Legislature, who dismiss the contract as too generous and out of line with the 1% in base raises being received by other state workers.
The contract raises employee health insurance premiums but includes no added payments by troopers toward their state pensions, a step that Walker has described as being only fair for other public employees to make.
Even other law enforcement unions with their bargaining rights still intact, such as local police officers and sheriff's deputies, are typically now paying part of their retirement contributions.
"The trend has clearly been going the other way" toward pension payments, said Jim Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association.
Palmer's statewide union has endorsed Walker's opponent in his three gubernatorial elections, as did the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin. There were two big exceptions at the local level, however: Both the Milwaukee police and firefighters unions endorsed Walker.
Walker's spokeswoman Patrick pointed out that Act 10 preserved collective bargaining for all local police and firefighters, not just those in Milwaukee, saying that proved Walker doesn't play favorites. Act 10 also eliminated collective bargaining for the state Capitol police, University of Wisconsin System police and state game wardens while preserving it for State Patrol troopers.
"Of the 315 police and firefighters unions across the state, three endorsed Governor Walker in 2010 and five endorsed him in 2014," Patrick said.
The WPPA has 9,900 members, while the Milwaukee Police Association, which is not affiliated with the statewide union, has about 1,600. "When Act 10 was introduced and debated, Governor Walker clearly stated that police and fire were exempt because of contingency planning to ensure public safety," Patrick said.
Palmer said he couldn't speculate what role, if any, politics played in Walker's treatment of police unions.
'Incredibly far behind'
Glen Jones, president of the troopers association and vice president of the group that negotiates contracts for troopers, said the proposed raise was justified because members haven't seen a pay increase since June 2009. He said that the wage boost is aimed at raising the pay of newer troopers and that veterans like him would wind up making less than Capitol police officers with similar experience.
"We've fallen incredibly far behind our counterparts," Jones said. Most state workers saw pay increases of 1% in 2013 and 1% in 2014, with some workers receiving merit raises. The administration has budgeted no money for base pay raises in 2015 and 2016.
Even Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) said the troopers' raises weren't politically viable. Fitzgerald's father, Stephen, is the State Patrol superintendent.
"It's just frustrating because the sheriff's departments pick (troopers) off offering them $5 more an hour," Scott Fitzgerald said. "I don't know how we get out of that box."
But Erpenbach said the same was true for some other state workers, such as prison guards, who have argued that their ranks are also seeing high turnover.
"You need to take that same attitude across the board, which (Walker) doesn't," Erpenbach said.
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