Labor experts agree that Gov. Scott Walker’s move to curtail collective bargaining rights for public employees is a dramatic departure from Wisconsin’s labor-friendly past.
The Wisconsin State AFL-CIO has launched TV and radio spots condemning the plan while the Wisconsin Club for Growth is airing a TV ad supporting the changes. We’ll look at the Club for Growth ad in a separate item.
The TV ad from the AFL-CIO centers on this message, delivered by a narrator:
"There’s now a move under way in Madison to take away the rights of thousands of teachers, nurses and other trusted public employees. A bill to take away any say they have in the workplace, and eliminate their union."
The visual backdrop includes lines from news articles about Walker’s plan.
Among the snippets: A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story that reads Walker’s plan would eliminate "any say on benefits and work rules" and an Associated Press story that reads "all collective bargaining rights would be removed for state and local public employees."
Is the ad correct that the plan would "eliminate" union representation for thousands and wipe out "any say" they have through collective bargaining.
When asked to back up the claims, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Stephanie Bloomingdale cited a Wheeler Report analysis that summarizes the budget-repair bill.
Let’s take a deeper look at claim.
Most of the debate has focused on what bargaining rights will be curtailed and the overall effect of the plan.
Digging deeper, the bill does eliminate all bargaining rights -- wages, benefits, working conditions -- for specific categories of public employees.
It would roll back the rights to organize unions and bargain for benefits for 30,000 University of Wisconsin System faculty and academic staff. Those rights were approved by Democrats in the 2009-'11 budget.
Not all of the 30,000 have joined a union, though. So far, under those rights, faculty at two universities, UW-Superior and UW-Eau Claire, have formed unions.
The measure would also repeal collective bargaining rights for some 5,000 home health care workers and for 2,800 employees of University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics, including nurses. It would also eliminate current collective bargaining rights of licensed child care providers.
All of that is also discussed in summaries of the bill and a letter from Walker to state employees.
As for the other public employees -- a much larger group that includes schoolteachers, local government workers and about half of 76,000 state employees -- the bill would allow collective bargaining only on a base pay rate (not overtime or special pay issues), and on raises only within the rate of inflation. That means no bargaining on fringe benefits, working conditions, outsourcing, safety and other issues.
So, the TV ad is correct on many of its main points.
But it also overreaches.
For instance, it suggests that the outright elimination of bargaining rights would cover all public employees. But they would not be completely eliminated for teachers outside of higher education, one group cited. Or for all "other trusted public employees."
Indeed, the ad does not mention that there would be no change for firefighters, police and state trooper unions -- a fact that has drawn its own criticism. (Firefighters are part of AFL-CIO; police are not.)
That incomplete information is underlined when the ad flashes a portion of a Feb. 10, 2011, Associated Press story, highlighting the words: "All collective bargaining rights would be removed for state and local public employees."
That’s a selectively edited version of the AP story, which added a significant phrase to that line: "except when it comes to wages."
The effect is to make Walker’s sweeping plan look even bolder.
Let’s look at the rest of the message as presented in the ad.
Would workers "take away any say" in the workplace, as the ad claims?
Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie said public employees would continue to have a say on working conditions -- not through unions, but through civil service laws. He noted those laws contain ways to file workplace grievances, and ensure employees are hired based on merit and experience, and are fired only for just cause.
But civil service systems are not in place at all Wisconsin municipalities and leave a lot of workers uncovered, according to Andrew Phillips, general counsel for the Wisconsin Counties Association.
For instance, about one-third of counties have no civil service system, and of the two-thirds that do, many only apply to deputy sheriffs, he said. The Legislature was considering changes to address this.
What about the question of whether the unions would be eliminated?
Clearly, some workers would have the right to organize directly eliminated, while many others would not.
Bloomingdale, the AFL-CIO official, acknowledges that the bill before the Legislature does not directly eliminate all subjects of collective bargaining -- but nearly all of them. She argues the bill’s provisions overall discredit the unions’ role and therefore endanger them.
One example she cites: Raises for unionized workers would be capped at inflation, but pay for nonunion employees is not. That disparity would hurt union membership, Bloomingdale said.
Other aspects of the bill: As Walker noted in his letter, employers would be prohibited from collecting union dues on behalf of the unions, members of collective bargaining units will not be required to pay dues, and there would have to be a vote every year on the status of the union.
We asked experts including academics and lawyers on both sides of labor-management talks about the assertion that -- on a practical basis -- the plan would mean the death of public employee unions.
James Scott, a management-side attorney who represents Milwaukee County, said the changes are dramatic, but not unprecedented. He said nine states totally prohibit collective bargaining for public employees, and 10 others restrict it to police/fire, or teachers or state employees.
His view of how life would be under the proposal:
"There isn’t much utility in belonging to a public sector labor union other than perhaps the social side of it," Scott said. He said calling it a death knell for unions might be "a little bit" too strong, but not much.
Timothy Hawks, whose law firm represents municipal and state employees, said if the bill goes through as drafted "you have busted every (public employee) union in the state."
A state official with a stake in both sides of labor disputes, Peter Davis, general counsel at the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission, said it was a "fair prediction" public sector workers would walk away from paying dues.
Cheryl Maranto, chairman of the management department at Marquette University’s College of Business Administration, said the bill would have the effect of "totally eliminating public sector bargaining in the state" by rendering the unions "irrelevant and powerless." In the historical view, she said Walker’s Democratic predecessor, Jim Doyle, overreached with pro-union moves and now Walker is going too far in the opposite direction.
Let’s get to the bottom line.
The AFL-CIO ad claims "thousands" of workers, including teachers, would lose all say in the workplace and see their union eliminated under Walker’s budget-repair bill.
The measure would eliminate bargaining rights for some groups of public employees, including nurses and teachers in higher education. That total tallies out to "thousands," but the ad presents the question as if all public employees would lose all bargaining rights. It even selectively shortens a news account to underline this point. That is an overreach, at least as an immediate consequence of the bill. As for the future, three of our four experts agreed with the union contention that it could be the end result in the future. The fourth felt it was only a small stretch.
The PolitiFact definition for Half True is: The statement is accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context. That’s what this ad does.
And that’s the ruling: Half True.