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By James B. Nelson February 17, 2011

Wisconsin state Sen. Alberta Darling says unions in the private sector bargain “for the most part” only on wages

A key argument for Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to strip Wisconsin public employees of most of their bargaining rights is pretty simple: The budget is tight, and they’ve got sweetheart deals you don’t find in the private sector.

If the move is approved by the GOP-controlled Legislature, the state employees would be forced to pay more for pension contributions and health care coverage. As it stands, Walker’s bill would essentially leave only wages to be discussed at the bargaining table -- and those raises would generally be limited by the rate of inflation.

As Republican leaders fanned out to defend the bill, state Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills,  appeared on WISN-TV’s "Upfront with Mike Gousha" on  Feb. 13, 2011. She is co-chairman of the powerful Joint Finance Committee, the first stop for the bill.

She began her comments by agreeing with Gousha about the scope of the proposals, which have stirred massive protests at the Capitol -- "It’s huge." -- and went on to say it was important that public employees pay their "fair share," just like workers in the private sector.

Darling added, "The governor is proposing that we have collective bargaining deal only with wages which is how it is, for the most part, in the private sector."

That didn’t sound right to us.

Walker’s bill would rewrite the state Employment Relations Act -- a law covering state employees that is more than 50 years old and was last amended in 1971. But private sector unions are covered by a federal law and generally bargain on all sorts of things.

We tried to reach Darling to ask for her backup, but she didn’t respond.

So we turned to some experts who are involved in private sector labor relations. And we took a look at federal law, the National Labor Relations Act,which governs most private employers.

According to this overview on the National Labor Relations Board website:

"Congress enacted the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) in 1935 to protect the rights of employees and employers, to encourage collective bargaining, and to curtail certain private sector labor and management practices, which can harm the general welfare of workers, businesses and the U.S. economy."

The law gives workers the right to bargain collectively for a contract that sets wages, benefits, hours and other working conditions, the NLRA says.

The law also requires workers and employers to "bargain in good faith about wages, hours, vacation time, insurance, safety practices and other mandatory subjects."

That covers a lot more than wages.

To see how it plays out on a practical level, we checked in with some folks on both sides of the bargaining table.

Candice Owley, president Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, said wages are only part of what’s important to nurses when they negotiate with hospitals. Her union represents about 3,000 nurses, about half of whom are employed at private facilities.

"We spend very little time these days on wages and a whole lot of time on working conditions," she said, such as seniority, schedules, the length of shifts, and what happens when a nurse is assigned to a different department.

Said Owley: "We bargain every kind of working condition imaginable."

James R. Scott, a Milwaukee laywer who represents management. His firm, Linder & Marsack, has about 80 percent private sector work.

"That’s not true," he said of Darling’s statement. "The standard is that you can bargain about everything that affects wages, hours and working conditions."

Scott noted that recent high profile negotiations have involved concessions from workers at companies such as Harley-Davidson, Kohler and Mercury Marine.

All of those manufacturers recently sought, and won, contracts that included two-tiered wage structures, the use of temporary workers and other changes that will reduce labor costs. With the companies reeling from the recession, the union members voted for changes that saved their jobs from being moved to other states.

"When you’re in concession bargaining it tends to be about money," Scott said, but added that unions "are not prevented from making a non-economic proposal."

Rick Badger, executive director of AFSCME District Council 40, whose membership is largely public employees, but includes some private sector workers.

In the cases of Harley and other manufacturers, "really drastic measures were taken to some jobs, but the unions still exist," Badger said. He said future talks will, of course, include discussions of benefits, schedules and other matters.

"All of these things are negotiated," Badger said. "You sit down and come up with solutions. It’s not just money, it’s the workplace."

Let’s return to Darling’s statement.

In arguing public employee unions ought to be treated more like their their private sector counterparts, she said "for the most part" private contract talks are limited to wages.

However, the National Labor Relations Act make it clear: Private employers with unions are not only allowed to bargain on many other issues -- that law requires the subjects be about far more than just wages.

We rate her statement False.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, appearanceon "Upfront with Mike Gousha," Feb. 13, 2011

Interview, Candice Owley, president Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, Feb. 16, 2011l

Interview, Rick Badger, executive director AFSCME District Council 40, Feb. 16, 2011

Interview, attorney James Scott, Feb. 16, 2011

Legislative Fiscal Bureau analysis of budget repair bill

National Labor Relations Board, history of the National Labor Relations Act

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Kohler workers vote to approve new contract,", Dec. 19, 2010

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Walker plan fair, offers solid footing for the state," opinion piece by state Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills,  Feb. 12, 2011

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More by James B. Nelson

Wisconsin state Sen. Alberta Darling says unions in the private sector bargain “for the most part” only on wages

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