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Wisconsin Cities Must Wrestle with Reality

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislators assault on union bargaining rights leaves too many questions for cities and their public employees.

As you have surely read, there's a lot going on in Madison, Wis., these days. The tens of thousands of protesters currently storming the Capitol came about when our new governor, Scott Walker, called a special legislative session in order to introduce a "budget repair bill." The stated purpose for this emergency session and this bill was that we have a short-term deficit that needs to be addressed.

Gov. Walker and Republican legislators have taken the liberty of extending their scope well beyond that original purpose. Instead of focusing on the short-term deficit as promised, they are using this emergency session as an opportunity to introduce dramatic, systematic changes to how local governments operate all over Wisconsin. The most controversial, which saves no money in the near future and perhaps no money ever unless policymakers make future decisions to cut benefits, is to eliminate collective bargaining for non-public safety employees.

Municipalities, like the one I represent as council president for Milwaukee, have many unanswered questions about the specifics of such a significant bill. If passed, could municipalities offer no health insurance for affected employees? What about existing contracts with labor organizations? Do they become null and void? Since collective bargaining was introduced partly to prevent public-sector strikes, would abolishing collective bargaining resurrect the right to strike?

Interestingly, proponents of the bill -- many of them Republican -- have embraced former President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Gov. Walker even invoked the New Deal with a recent "fireside chat," so that he could speak directly to Wisconsinites. Why the sudden fascination with FDR? Partly because a 1937 Roosevelt letter to the National Federation of Federal Employees, taken out of context, suggests that he might have unequivocally opposed collective bargaining in the public sector.

The reality, as with most things, is more complicated than a simple sound bite. President Roosevelt was actually writing the letter to acknowledge that it was "natural and logical" for government employees to organize "for fair and adequate pay, reasonable hours of work, safe and suitable working conditions, development opportunities for advancement" and several other considerations. He continues in the correspondence, saying that "collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service." But he makes his overall point crystal clear, "I want to emphasize my conviction that militant tactics have no place in the functions of any organization of Government employees." In other words, some form of collective bargaining was necessary to prevent strikes, but not "as usually understood" in the private sector.

As written, the proposal from Gov. Walker would effectively create two classes of city employees in Milwaukee, resulting in the kind of divisions and unrest that Roosevelt resisted. If passed, public safety employees (more than 60 percent of our budget) would retain collective bargaining rights and avoid having to pay into their pensions. Conversely, garbage collectors, street sweepers and public health nurses -- just to name a few - would not only pay into retirement (something they have already volunteered to do), but also have no real opportunity to meet with management at the bargaining table.

Many have noted that the exempted public safety unions are also the very same unions that supported Walker as a candidate in the recent gubernatorial race. Some believe this is a quid pro quo. Possibly. What is equally disturbing, if not more, is that state law already allows for the salaries of police and fire union leaders be paid with Milwaukee tax dollars. It's a classic example of favoring one group of employees over another, and sticking it to city taxpayers in the process. This new bill just makes that favoritism even more blatant and egregious.

From a policy-making perspective, the proposed bill is just moving too quickly with too few details actually worked out. Some have even questioned its legality, given conflicts with our city charter and state constitution. As an elected official, I'd like to see all employees treated equally: all in, or all out. And lastly, being a taxpayer myself, real government reform is always preferable to political posturing, which may or may not save money when all is finally said and done.

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