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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Change Is Coming to Milwaukee County

Collective bargaining bill continues to divide

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Milwaukee County is in the process of sorting out the details of how, exactly, Gov. Scott Walker's controversial collective bargaining bill will be implemented throughout county government.

Department of Administration Secretary Mike Huebsch released a three-page guidance memo to local governments last week regarding the employee pension and health care contributions now mandated by the state. Beyond that, it's up to local leaders to fill in the details.

As their contracts with the county expire, represented employees' work rules will be governed by the county's civil service system. Changes to that system would need to be made via the county's regular legislative process, which allows the public to weigh in.

Workers will have to recertify their unions based on a majority of all members of that bargaining unit. If the union is recertified, it will not be able to negotiate anything other than wages, which will be limited to the rate of inflation—currently about 1%.

Jeff Bentoff, spokesman for Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, said Abele has been meeting with department heads to hammer out a list of changes that can be made under Walker's bill. For example, members of the county's largest union, AFSCME DC-48, will no longer have their union dues deducted from their paychecks beginning July 10; furlough days will be ended for the rest of the year; health care premiums will increase Aug. 1; and overtime policy will change in the coming weeks.

Milwaukee County Supervisor Joe Sanfelippo, chair of the county board's Personnel Committee and an ally of Walker when the governor served as county executive, hailed the collective bargaining bill, claiming that it would save the county money, give the county more flexibility to deal with personnel issues, and improve morale among the county's workforce.

“In the past we've been forced to privatize and outsource workers because our payroll and labor costs were so high,” Sanfelippo said. “But by making those jobs more affordable there will be less of an incentive for us to outsource services or privatize them because the savings won't be as great as they were before.”

But Sanfelippo's optimistic view of the collective bargaining bill isn't shared by all of his colleagues on the board.

Supervisor Theo Lipscomb, a member of the Personnel Committee, said that Walker's bill has already led to high numbers of recent retirements and will lead to strained relations with the remaining county workforce.

Contrary to Sanfelippo's assertion that the bill offers more job security and stability for workers, Lipscomb said that the bill—especially its wage cap—would make it more difficult for the county to retain good workers, especially skilled professionals such as nurses.

“At some point it's counterproductive,” Lipscomb said. “At a certain point [the county] can't compete for talent, especially skilled talent that has a private sector alternative and a competitive environment for recruitment. People will have alternatives, especially as the economy improves.”

More State Mandates

Supervisor John Weishan, who had served on the Personnel Committee until last year, when Board Chair Lee Holloway replaced half of its members, said he wasn't even sure if the bill could be implemented in the county. He said that the county's pension plan, which is separate from the state's pension plan, had never included a provision to allow employee contributions. He said that legal opinions over the years have conflicted. Some say the county can demand employee contributions; others say it's illegal, he said. Weishan said he feared the contribution could be challenged in the courts by retirees.

“Then all of a sudden we owe millions back to employees,” Weishan said.

He said the county has already taken steps to reduce its benefits costs, including reducing the pension multiplier for non-represented employees, which reduces the size of their pensions. He said employees would be hit with a “double-whammy” once Walker's collective bargaining bill is fully phased in for all workers.

“Not only will they pay more [into the pension system], but they will get a smaller pension,” Weishan said.

He said Walker's bill would ultimately neuter or destroy the county's employee unions.

“I honestly don't understand why you would continue to have a union,” Weishan said. “You can't negotiate anything.”

Sanfelippo countered that unions would now have to prove to their members that they can serve their interests—even if they can't participate in full contract negotiations, which comprises a huge portion of their current responsibilities.

“Really, the only thing they won't be able to do is negotiate an actual contract,” Sanfelippo said. “But otherwise they're going to be treated the same as any other entity that does business with the county.

And although Sanfelippo argued that Walker's bill would give the county more flexibility in dealing with its workforce, Weishan said it merely created more state mandates, which Republicans like Walker usually rail against. The “tools” that Walker and Republican legislators have played up in the press are a complete fabrication, Weishan said.

“All I've seen is more mandates from the state,” Weishan said. “It doesn't give me any tools. Scott Walker might as well still be the Milwaukee County executive and the governor at the same time because he's more engaged in Milwaukee County now than he was when he was county executive.”

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