Watchful neighbors

Published 5:00 pm Saturday, March 12, 2011

Protesters flood the Wisconsin state capitol building in Madison, Wis. - Photo submitted

While controversy over public workers’ rights has brought throngs of protesters to the Wisconsin capitol in recent weeks, the discord affects more than Wisconsin natives.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to strip public employees of their collective rights to bargain wages has ignited a firestorm of controversy across the nation, with more and more states considering similar measures by the day.

Damon Strouf, a 1999 Austin High School grad and current Madison resident, has spent five days protesting at the Wisconsin capitol with his wife, Callie. He said Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to increase pension pay-in and health insurance contributions will affect he and Callie by about $130 each month.

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However, that’s not the main reason he has joined protesters to rally for public workers’ rights.

“I don’t believe corporations and billionaires should be calling the shots in government and making decisions that negatively affect working class and middle class people,” Strouf said. “My biggest issue is the fact that Gov. Walker has convinced people that these public workers are the enemy, and they’re not the enemy.”

Instead of coming down on workers’ bargaining rights and essentially slashing pay by 8 percent, Strouf said the government should first look at repealing corporate tax breaks and increasing tax rates on the state’s top earners.

“Overall, this is a massive power grab,” he said. “He’s taking away workers’ rights, he’s giving himself complete control over Medicaid in the state and selling off assets with no bids. It’s a scare tactic.”

Strouf isn’t just afraid for Wisconsin’s public workers, though. He thinks similar legislation could become popular with conservatives throughout the entire country.

“I think the whole idea of breaking these unions is something the Republicans would try to cascade around through the states,” he said.

However, Rep. Rich Murray, R-Albert Lea, said Minnesota will not encounter the kinds of problems Wisconsin is seeing because public workers here already pay in to pension and health care programs.

“Minnesota is not Wisconsin,” Murray said. “Our unions … are already paying into pensions and health care way more than what’s happening in Wisconsin. A big part of the problem is that most of them are paying nothing into those systems right now.”

Rep. Jeanne Poppe, DFL-Austin, said in a news release that Minnesota public workers currently pay about 6 percent of their salaries into pension accounts. Teachers contribute 5.5 percent, which will increase to 7.5 percent by 2014. Also, Minnesota workers contribute more than 12 percent to health care accounts, whereas Wisconsin workers are being asked to pay 12 percent, up from 6 percent, Poppe said.

The potentially more pressing concern for unions in Minnesota focuses more on membership numbers than increased financial contribution. A bill has been introduced in the Legislature that would make Minnesota a “Right to Work” state, meaning employees would be able to choose whether to join the union at their workplace.

Murray said there is little likelihood of democratic Gov. Mark Dayton signing such a bill. Such a measure could end up on the ballot in the 2012 election as an amendment to the Constitution, both Murray and Poppe said.

Writing on the chalkboard

The conflicts in Wisconsin are symbolic of the work issues affecting classrooms on both sides of the Mississippi River.

As budget woes are heard from state governments across the nation, collective bargaining has become a hot issue not just in Wisconsin but in nearby Indiana, Ohio and Michigan. Minnesota is no stranger to union talks this legislative session, with the Right to Work bill working its way around House committees and a senate-approved education bill that would freeze public school employee wages for the next few years coming under consideration by the House.

Local school officials fear the two-year salary freeze would prohibit unions from striking over the freeze and eliminate a Jan. 15 deadline to settle teacher contracts. If the bill becomes law, it would prevent districts from putting any type of increases in contract negotiations from now until June 30, when the state’s fiscal year ends.

“(Contracts will) become more focused on the details of the language,” said Mary Burroughs, Austin Public School’s human services director. “In many ways, a salary increase may be simpler than hashing language back and forth over and over again.”

In Austin, teachers, secretaries, custodians, food service, paraprofessional and superintendent contracts are up for negotiations this year.

While the pay freeze bill seems similar to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s current proposal, the two public employee measures differ in several ways. Walker’s proposal to do away with collective bargaining only affects wage negotiations, which means the bill wouldn’t affect negotiating increases in step or lane changes, among other things. In addition, Wisconsin public workers would still be eligible for cost of living increases. If Minnesota’s salary freeze bill passed, Minnesota school employees wouldn’t see an increase of any type in their wages, step changes, cost of living or benefit increases of any kind for the next two years.

“We want the most highly qualified teachers and the best educated teachers we can get,” said Neveln Elementary School Principal Dewey Schara. Schara and Woodson Kindergarten Center Principal Jean McDermott negotiated principal contracts with the district last year. “The more you erode the benefits in a package. The less likely the top students in college are going to go into education. It’s difficult right now to keep top notch teachers, ” Schara said.

District officials claim one-size-fits-all budget proposals like the pay freeze hurt local districts; abilities to set their own budget. Although the freeze would help some districts balance their budgets and would be financially beneficial to Austin, it would also hinder negotiation efforts between employees and administrators.

Many district employees have taken pay freezes within the last couple of years to help Austin’s budget. Teachers currently have a soft pay freeze built into their contract, with a lump sum payment of $750 given at the end of the last fiscal year. Principals offered to take a one-year soft freeze in 2009 before their contracts were up for review. District secretaries have accepted a freeze for about three years now.

Wisconsin public employees have taken cuts of their own over recent years. Last year, public employees took a 3 percent pay cut to help that state’s budget, with another 3 percent cut this year, as well.

While collective bargaining debates will continue across the nation, public school teachers everywhere are carefully watching what happens.

Wisconsin’s Bargaining History

Dr. Ed Muzik knows how much of a struggle it is to work for teacher’s rights. As a negotiator for The Association of University of Wisconsin Professionals (TAUWP) for almost 30 years, the UW—Eau Claire professor emeritus was among the top fighters for collective bargaining rights when he and TAUWP first began the fight in 1969. Muzik remembers when, in 1973, a bill was first introduced to Wisconsin’s Legislature giving workers across the UW school system collective bargaining rights.

That bill was defeated and was shot down every year after that. Muzik retired in 2003 and, although he’d won gains for higher education employees like increased retirement benefits, he never did get collective bargaining rights for UW staff. Wisconsin higher education employees finally received collective bargaining rights in 2009, when former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle signed off on the state budget which included collective bargaining rights for more than 20,000 UW faculty, academic staff and research assistants. It was a watershed moment for past and present UW faculty who hungered for progress.

Muzik strongly disagrees with Walker’s proposal to end collective bargaining for all state employees on wages, reiterating that Wisconsin public employees have said they’d agree to any other budget proposals as long as they keep collective bargaining rights.

“The current demand of the governor on budget items is simply a ruse. His major goal is to destroy the unit,” Muzik said. “Any talk you hear that this is a budget issue is a subterfuge, a smokescreen, to hide the real goal of the governor trying to destroy the units.”

‘Come to the table’

Though the happenings in Wisconsin don’t directly affect Mower County or the city of Austin, County Coordinator Craig Oscarson said the officials are watching to see if it sets any precedent.

The county is currently negotiating contracts with its unions, and Oscarson said the negotiations have gone smoothly because the unions realize the tough economic position of the county.

“They’ve come to the table to work with us,” Oscarson said, who noted the union’s contracts are close to a freeze even though they are likely to get a small raise.

Oscarson didn’t question the motives to ask employees to pay into their pension, but he questions Walker’s methods. He said discussions and give-and-take are a vital with unions.

Mower County has five unions. The city of Austin has eight, though they’re not all officially unions.

“We have to keep an eye on what’s going on, not just in our own state but in others as well,” said City Administrator Jim Hurm.

Last week, Oscarson questioned if the Wisconsin situation would spur pro-union bills in Minnesota. As the county studies regionalized Human Services, a pro-union bill could complicate the counties’ ability to merge departments or staff.

However, that doesn’t appear likely this year.

“The current Legislature … is probably not going to be introducing bills that are pro Legislature,” Oscarson said.