WI prison guards could vote next year on new unionBrian Cunningham, a guard at the Waupun Correctional Institution, said he's filed more than 1,900 signatures demanding a new union for about 5,800 prison workers, game wardens and other state employees classified as security and public safety workers.
MADISON (AP) — Wisconsin's prison guards could vote as soon as next year in whether to break away from the Wisconsin State Employees Union.
The vote would culminate a bitter fight over election setbacks, discontent with labor leaders, and anger about working conditions 17 months after the state all but eliminated public sector union rights, the Wisconsin State Journal reported Sunday.
Brian Cunningham, a guard at the Waupun Correctional Institution, said he's filed more than 1,900 signatures demanding a new union for about 5,800 prison workers, game wardens and other state employees classified as security and public safety workers.
"We tried to change our union from the inside," Cunningham said. "They didn't realize there was such a hunger to do what we're doing."
An election could be held early next year if the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission verifies that signatures of 30 percent of bargaining unit members have been filed and after union complaints about the process are settled, said Peter Davis, the commission's general counsel.
WSEU is one of a half-dozen major public employee unions still reeling from the 2011 state law championed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker that prohibited almost all collective bargaining for public employees and banned automatic dues collections. WSEU is one of three Wisconsin councils of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The union's dues-paying membership of 22,000 has plummeted to less than 10,000 since the law passed, forcing cuts in organizing staff.
WSEU director Marty Beil said the guards are in for a rude awakening if they succeed in forming an independent union with lower dues and a smaller staff, because they would lack sufficient resources to serve members. He acknowledged that the leaders of the break-away effort are veteran union members, but he said they lack experience in crucial arenas such as the Legislature and the courts.
"They are going to get slaughtered, but they won't listen to anything, and I just don't know how to stop them from walking down that path," Beil said.
Cunningham said their main reason for seeking a new union is that WSEU failed to recertify with the state after the union law. Most major unions opposed seeking official state status. They said the new law made certification too costly and difficult, while allowing bargaining on nothing but an annual cost of living raise and providing workers with no clout to win even that.
But Cunningham insisted that certification would allow guards to persuade prison managers to fix what he said are serious, morale-killing problems involving safety, scheduling and overtime.
Cunningham, who identified himself as a lifelong Republican, said he disagrees with Walker on some issues, including the new law, but charged that Beil has alienated GOP leaders with excessive attacks.
Prison guards are understandably angry about their treatment by management but are in for a surprise if they expect the governor to become their friend, Beil said.
"Now we're going to have small unions and we're going to sidle up to Scott Walker and he's going to treat us differently?" Beil said. "That just isn't grounded in reality."
Tensions have long existed between relatively conservative prison guards and other members of the public sector unions, said Will Jones, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor who specializes in AFSCME history.
"In some ways it makes sense, if there are political tensions, for workers to elect leadership that reflects their views," Jones said. "But in this environment it would be difficult for an independent union to survive without affiliation to an international union like AFSCME. If they have to go on strike or get into a big legal battle they won't have the reserves that AFSCME would provide."
Information from: Wisconsin State Journal, http://www.madison.com/wsj