The Corner

Wisconsin Officials Rush to Walker-Proof Their Benefits

Just days after Gov. Scott Walker introduced his budget repair bill, public-sector-union leaders said they would accept Walker’s financial demands as long as he kept collective bargaining intact. However, in the time bought by the flight of 14 Democratic state senators, local governments have been quickly adopting new contracts in advance of Walker’s bill becoming law. In effect, the unions are spraying their benefits with Walker repellent. (In fact, an investigative report shows that there may have been collusion between the missing state senators and City of Madison officials to delay the bill so contracts could be signed.)

Three days after the governor introduced his budget, the Milwaukee Area Technical College ratified a new three-year contract that preserves no-cost pensions and contains no layoffs for its teachers (average pay: $95,000.) Union leaders called an emergency meeting at 5:00 p.m. on a Friday night to vote on their new contract — yet their president said that had “nothing to do” with Walker’s budget-repair bill.

State employees tried to pull a similar trick in December. In a Hindenburg-like fiasco, Democrats tried to use the pre-Walker lame-duck session to pass state union-worker contracts with microscopic concessions. To get their deciding vote in the assembly, they even pulled a legislator out of jail, where he was serving time for drunk driving. The contracts unexpectedly failed by one vote in the senate when the Democrats’ leader inexplicably switched his position at the last minute.

Also before Walker took office, the Milwaukee Public School board quickly adopted a four-year teacher contract that runs through 2013. It contains pay increases of 2.5 to 3 percent, and requires teachers to begin contributing to their health insurance for the first time — although in amounts well short of what Walker is proposing (1 percent of salary for single coverage, 2 percent for family). The contract also extends health benefits to domestic partners, which will offset a good portion of the $50 million in savings the district expects to realize from the teachers’ contributions.

For other school districts that ram through generous contracts, the results could be disastrous: Walker just announced a budget that reduces state aid to local school districts by $834 million; much of that cut was going to be offset by teachers’ increased benefit contributions, but districts that capitulate to their teachers won’t have that option. Instead of having a full complement of teachers paying slightly more for their benefits, they will have fewer teachers, but teachers with jewel-encrusted retirement and health packages. Then they will blame Scott Walker for the massive layoffs their districts will see.

The president of the state’s largest teachers’ union has already set the stage for a “Blame Walker” campaign. “There’s no way that school districts in this state are going to be able to address this kind of budget shortfall without layoffs and program cuts that will damage the quality of education,” said WEAC’s Mary Bell on Tuesday.

Yet many of her bargaining units are trying to guarantee as many layoffs as possible. In rushing to the negotiating table, teachers’ union leaders are picking their own bank accounts over kids. This should be no surprise to anyone in Wisconsin whose child sat at home for a few days when teachers walked off the job over a week ago.

This rush to ratify new contracts is why Scott Walker didn’t take the union leaders up on their “deal” almost two weeks ago — there’s no way the AFSCME and AFL-CIO big shots could control the contract machinations of over 1,000 local governments. While protesters roared that their objection to Walker’s plan wasn’t “about the money,” their bargaining units were working furiously behind the scenes to grab as much cash as possible before Walker dropped the guillotine.

Furthermore, these new contracts demonstrate why declaring public sector “collective bargaining” to be sacrosanct is so preposterous. In places like the City of Madison, there’s very little “bargaining” happening. Public employees and elected officials are sitting on the same side of the table. The only actual negotiating taking place is from city employees deciding which Applebee’s they’ll crash to celebrate their fat new contracts.

— Christian Schneider is a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.

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