More state bills target benefits, bargaining rights
Far from over, the Wisconsin budget battle that erupted earlier this year has made its way to the courts and underscores how state employees—and even their work environment—can be affected by decisions lawmakers say they must make to maintain services and prevent layoffs.
Wisconsin gained national prominence in March after the state Legislature pushed a budget bill that first-term Republican Gov. Scott Walker said would help the state plug a nearly $140 million budget deficit and allow 1,500 state employees to keep their jobs.
The bill required what Walker called “modest healthcare and pension contributions” for state employees. In an online “brown bag lunch” series, Walker said the bill called for all state workers to contribute 5.8% of their pay for their pensions and contribute 12.6% of the cost of healthcare coverage. These provisions were projected to save $30 million.
“While tough budget choices certainly still lie ahead, both state and local units of government will not have to do any mass layoffs or direct service reductions because of the reforms contained in the budget repair bill,” Walker said in a statement in early March.
David Weimer, professor of political science and public affairs at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, says in an e-mail that state workers now contribute 6.2% of their health insurance costs, meaning that percentage would double.
“The unions had agreed to go along when they saw the governor would do away with collective-bargaining rights,” Weimer says.
Although Walker signed the bill March 11, it has not been published as law by the secretary of state because it’s currently held up in the courts. It limits collective-bargaining rights for state workers—except police officers and firefighters—to negotiations about wages only. And then wages must be capped at the Consumer Price Index, according to Leslie Frane, director of the public services division at the Service Employees International Union.
“The members of our unions are strong advocates for affordable healthcare for everyone,” Frane says. “That’s why we supported the Afford- able Care Act. That’s why we believe all workers in the private and public sector should have quality health benefits and a voice in the conversation about what those benefits will be.”
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, there are at least 51 collective-bargaining-related bills in 11 states across the country. For example, one bill in Hawaii would establish health-benefits trust funds for the bargaining unit; require public employers and unions to negotiate employers’ contributions; change the impasse procedures for certain bargaining units; and also provide a right to strike on the issue of a public employer’s contribution for health and other benefits.
In Michigan, one pending bill would allow the Legislature to regulate health benefits of public employees and officers, while another would create a health coverage plan for public employees and implement the plan. The latter would establish a statewide insurance pool for state and municipal employees as a way to streamline the current process, which includes several local contracts, according to state Rep. Tim Melton, a Democrat.
And in Rhode Island, a bill would require all state and local public employees to pay 25% of the premium costs of healthcare and dental benefits in any collective-bargaining agreement implemented on or after April 1 of this year or any extension effective as of that date.
According to the SEIU, bills are “actively moving” in Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan and Nebraska to limit public-sector collectivebargaining rights, while bills have passed in Idaho, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Oklahoma and Tennessee that remove collective-bargaining rights in some form.
In Wisconsin, the main issue continues to be the hurried procedure that led to the bill’s passage in mid-March. Howard Schweber, an associate professor of political science at UW-Madison, says the budget was presented in two steps: the budget-repair bill and the budget. Legal battles have surrounded the former, which has an effect on the full budget.
“There was a protest and Democrats left the state,” Schweber says. “In their absence, Republicans removed one piece of the budget repair bill to eliminate the part about the state’s debt and pushed it through. Normally, a bill is
Police hold back protesters during a rally at the Wisconsin Capitol in March against a bill to limit collective bargaining by public employees. The bill was signed but is being challenged in court.