Last Gasp For Public Sector Unions in Wisconsin?

By Collin Roth

With the Budget Repair Bill firmly intact after a prolonged court fight, and the 2012-13 budget making its way to the Governor’s desk, public sector unions in Wisconsin know they are stooping at death’s doorstep. Their last ditch attempt lies in flipping the state senate in the summer recall elections and a federal lawsuit alleging violations of both the First and Fourteenth Amendments. But neither strategy is likely to block the June 29 publishing of Wisconsin Act 10 which limits collective bargaining to only pay and prohibits government from automatically deducting union dues from paychecks.

The union lawsuit alleges that the Budget Repair Bill violates the Equal Protection clause by creating a two-tiered system whereby police, firefighters, and transit workers are exempt from the changes to collective bargaining. Furthermore, the unions want to frame this as a form of political payback because the Milwaukee Professional Firefighters Union, the Milwaukee Police Association, the West Allis Professional Police Association, and the Wisconsin Troopers Association all endorsed Scott Walker during the 2010 election.

But neither of the state’s largest police and fire fighter unions, the Wisconsin Professional Police Association and the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin, endorsed Walker during the 2010 campaign. In fact, Mahlon Mitchell, President of the Professional Fire Fighter’s union has been one of Walker’s most outspoken critics, lambasting the Budget Repair Bill at rallies and in interviews.

Walker has explained his exemption of fire fighters and police as prudential, not wanting to create any disruption to public safety. But the truth of the matter is, fire fighters and police are in a different line of work than teachers and snowplow drivers. Their lives are on the line, their careers are shorter, and their hazards are far greater.

Furthermore, from a fiscal standpoint, police and firefighters do not represent a significant chunk of the pie at just 14,000 members. The greatest savings from the Budget Repair Bill will come from WEAC’s 98,000 members and AFSCME’s 23,000.

As for transit workers being exempt from Act 10, one can only thank the federal government’s rules governing federal transit dollars. Federal rules require transit employees to have collective bargaining rights in order for state’s to receive federal transit money. Fear not bus driver’s of Madison, your ability to make six figures is safe thanks to the federal government.

At the end of the day, the unions are not concerned about the First and Fourteenth Amendments but the protection of union dues. It hardly took a day for Wisconsin unions to cave on the concessions Walker demanded, as long as they didn’t take away union rights (read: right to take dues out of worker paychecks). Walker’s Budget Repair Bill effectively makes Wisconsin a Right-To-Work state for public employees and this only spells trouble for union leadership and their ability to influence elections.

When Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana curtailed collective bargaining and the automatic deduction of dues in 2005, membership in public sector unions fell by 90%. And that is the crux of the issue. If union membership is voluntary, public sector unions know without a doubt that their power, money, and influence will wane significantly. Union bosses such as Marty Beil now facing the prospect of seeing their six-figure salaries cut, and and an end to their ability to pump truckloads of money collected from union dues into campaigns to elect Democrats.

It was never about the workers. It was, is, and always will be about the involuntary collection of union dues that finance the political activities of public sector unions.

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