Stand up for the facts!

Our only agenda is to publish the truth so you can be an informed participant in democracy.
We need your help.

More Info

I would like to contribute

By Dave Umhoefer July 10, 2011

Gov. Scott Walker says public-employee unions falsely told members that they would have to pay up to 13 percent of incomes for health insurance

Gov. Scott Walker loves playing political pundit, so he was ready with talking points when a CNBC interviewer asked him if he could resurrect popularity polls numbers that "are in the toilet."

Walker predicted his numbers would turn around as protests over his battle with public employee unions die down and people realize his 2011-’13 budget wasn’t the end of the world.

And he blamed unions for a disinformation campaign for tainting the public’s view of the plan, which forces public employees to pay more for pensions and health care costs.

"In many cases, many of the national unions told their members things that just don't add up," Walker told "Squawk Box" co-anchor Joe Kernen on June 21, 2011. "They told them, for example, that the health insurance premium (contributions) we were asking for were a percentage of their incomes, not of their premiums."

"Well that’s a big difference," Walker continued. "If you’re asked to pay 12 to 13 percent of your actual salary, that’s a huge amount..."

That certainly is a big difference.

Walker’s claim is a variation on a theme advanced by Republicans, that national union leaders were pulling the strings here in order to boost the size and duration of the Capitol protests. But it puts an awfully specific spin on it.

When we asked for backup, Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie said they had no documentation of unions making that claim to members. He said Walker as heard this privately from teachers around the state, though he did not identify any individual teachers.

That leaves it to us to see what evidence there may be.

A bit of background before we begin:

In December, after the election, Walker spoke publicly about his plan to seek greater health and pension contributions. He repeated that during his state of the state speech Feb. 1. And less than two weeks later, he unveiled the plan as part of his budget-repair bill.

After unprecedented protests -- and the departure of 14 Democratic senators to Illinois -- the plan won final approval on March 9, 2011. It then survived a legal challenge at the Supreme Court over the manner in which it was approved -- and there may be more battles to come.

A central part of the plan: Requiring most state and local public employees to pay at least 12 percent of the cost of their health insurance premiums.

It is a big deal for workers. As the issue was debated, we found in an earlier item, the average state employee was paying about 4 percent to 6 percent of the premium. Local government workers’ costs varied by municipality or school district.

Walker’s plan also called for workers to pay more toward their pensions -- a contribution of about 5.8 percent of their salary.

Note the difference: the pension contribution was a percentage of salary, and the health change was percentage of total premium.

The governor’s office -- and reporters --  soon began reporting the combined impact on workers’ paychecks, because in the end that’s where the money would come from. In effect, it is a reduction in pay.

In our review, we found a range. Depending on their incomes and health insurance choices, workers would see a 6.8 percent to 12.9 percent hit from the combined changes.

With all these numbers floating around, the opportunity for confusion was there. In fact, scattered media reports got the health-insurance change wrong, reporting it as a percentage of income.

And we previously found one falsehood on health insurance that circulated briefly in an email, but it involved Walker’s separate two-year budget, not the repair bill. Some state corrections employees, including a dentist who leads unionized state professionals, thought the budget forced workers to pay 100 percent of health costs, but that email rumor was quickly debunked by the state’s largest public-sector union, and separately by PolitiFact Wisconsin.

The issue here is how the big unions described Walker’s health change to their members. Those unions were the subject of Walker’s misinformation claim.

We reviewed dozens of public communications -- web postings, email alerts and press releases -- between the various unions and their members, as well as to the general public. We also looked for private communications, some of which surfaced publicly.

The ones we found all accurately described the impact of the plan.

A few examples: The Wisconsin State Employees Union, part of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), got it right. Same for the state’s largest teachers union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the National Education Association, AFT-Wisconsin and Madison Teachers Inc.

Marty Beil, head of the Wisconsin State Employees Union, said his 22,000 members understood Walker’s plan very clearly.

"For him to say that is just misleading as hell," Beil said. "There was no misunderstanding."

Let’s finish up.

Walker blamed union disinformation for what he said was confusion about his health insurance plan in his budget repair bill. He squarely blamed big unions, and described the problem as widespread. But Walker offered no tangible evidence for his claim. And our check of the communications by the big unions found no instances of unions falsely portraying his plan as a percentage of income.

If any additional information surfaces, we may revisit this ruling. But based on the information available, and the lack of documentation from Walker, we rate the statement False.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

CNBC, video clip of Gov. Scott Walker’s appearance, June 21, 2011

Interview with Bryan Kennedy, president of AFT-Wisconsin, June 24, 2011

Email interview with Cullen Werwie, Gov. Scott Walker’s press secretary, June 21, 2011

Interview with Marty Beil, head of Wisconsin State Employees Union, June 24, 2011

Interview with Bob Allen, spokesman, AFSCME Wisconsin

Gov. Scott Walker, state of state speech transcript

PolitiFact Wisconsin, item on chain-email, published March 8, 2011

Wisconsin State Employees Union, web alert to members, February 10, 2011

Wisconsin Education Association Council, February 10, 2011

National Education Association, press release, April 14, 2011

AFT-Wisconsin, press release, February 11, 2011

Madison Teachers Inc., web posting, Feb. 21, 2011

Green Bay Education Association, undated letter

Browse the Truth-O-Meter

More by Dave Umhoefer

Gov. Scott Walker says public-employee unions falsely told members that they would have to pay up to 13 percent of incomes for health insurance

Support independent fact-checking.
Become a member!

In a world of wild talk and fake news, help us stand up for the facts.

Sign me up