Wis. Governor Aims to Curb Bargaining by Union State Workers

Wisconsin's new Republican governor on Friday will propose sharply curtailing the bargaining rights of public employee unions and other cost-saving measures to rein in the state's budget deficit.

The proposal, which would allow unions to bargain only on wages and not benefits, drew a critical response from Democrats in the state, which has a $137 million budget deficit in the fiscal year ending June 30.

Governor Scott Walker, who was set to announce his plans Friday morning, wants to push his plan through the Republican-controlled legislature as soon as next week.

"The governor and legislative Republican's plan is a misguided, radical, overreach to strip workers of their rights to bargain with their employer," Senate Democratic Leader Mark Miller said in a statement.

"If Republicans get their way, workers will no longer be able to negotiate over the hours they work, the safety conditions they labor under or the health insurance and retirement benefits they and their families depend on," Miller said.

Elements of proposal, which Walker briefed to select state officials on Thursday, include state employee wage increases limited to the rate of inflation unless agreed to in a voter referendum, larger employee contributions to their pensions and health care, refinancing of state debt, and changes to the Medicaid program.

A growing number of deficit-ridden states have initiated efforts to curb expenses by going after public employee union contracts and pensions.

"The proposed legislation ... would basically eliminate all bargaining rights that public sector employees in Wisconsin now have and limit bargaining to ... wages," Marquette University Law School professor Paul Secunda said.

"Not only is this inconsistent with international human rights law, which recognizes a right to collectively bargain with one's employer, but it also flies in the face of decades of cooperation between the labor movement and the government in Wisconsin," he said.

Democratic state Senator Spencer Coggs said "we will have in Wisconsin what in effect will be legalized slavery."

Walker's goal may be to use the bill as a bargaining chip to cut pension and health insurance costs, Secunda said.

"Even if that were the case, one must ask why Governor Walker did not first sit down and discuss these issues with the public sector unions, but instead, within a month of taking office, went directly to the most divisive approach imaginable," he said.