Public employee unions scramble to adjust to new rules

Wisconsin's public employee unions are scrambling to set up systems to collect dues and win annual certification elections now that the state has repealed most of the laws under which they've operated for decades.

Wisconsin's public employee unions are scrambling to set up systems to collect dues and win annual certification elections now that the state has repealed most of the laws under which they've operated for decades.

Barring successful court challenges, the changes for most public sector unions would take effect by March 25. Revamped labor laws will forbid collective bargaining except for cost-of-living pay increases, cut take-home pay to cover more of the costs of retirement and insurance, and set up major new operational obstacles.

"It's an unprecedented hostile action," said Joseph Guzynski, staff representative for 33 AFSCME union locals in southwest Wisconsin.

The changes present challenges that some see as threats to the survival of organized labor here, but union leaders say the swiftness and severity of the changes have aroused union members in a way that could lead to greater strength and activism.

"Members are angry and scared," Guzynski said. "They're also very motivated."


Under the law signed by Walker on Friday, union dues will become voluntary and they'll no longer be deducted from paychecks, and despite a requirement for annual certification votes by a majority of members -- not a simple majority of those voting -- starting next month.

Walker said the costs of labor must be reduced to help governments balance their budgets. Democratic opponents say it is a union-busting measure designed to make state government's new Republican majority a permanent fixture.

Time frame varies

The impact of the new law will be felt by thousand of union members this month, while others with signed contacts probably won't be affected until their contracts expire -- later this year for some, and two or three years from now for others.

It's not clear how many of the roughly 2,000 contracts for school and local government employees are expired, but all 19 state employee pacts have lapsed.

Many local unions are now attempting to renew contracts for one or more years before the new law takes effect.

"Some employers value the relationship they have with the unions, and there are others who are looking to take advantage of the situation and are delaying meetings and delaying coming to new agreements," said Jack Bernfeld, associate director of the 32,000-member AFSCME Council 40.

Annual votes to begin in April


Under current law, employees vote once to form their union, and rarely after that.

Walker has said the annual votes will force unions to prove their value to members.

The new law calls for the first votes to begin in April. The 32,000 state employees in the AFSCME Council 24 local unions will be mailed ballots by the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission, said Peter Davis, the commission's general counsel.

Davis said his 20-member staff will have a hard time counting all the ballots before the end of the month, and it's possible that school and local unions won't need to vote this year, even if their contracts are expired.

Those with valid contracts probably won't vote until after the pacts expire, but even that isn't certain, said Andrew Phillips, a attorney who handles union matters for the Wisconsin Counties Association.

"There's a lot of uncertainty out there," Phillips said. "The battle was won, but the war's not over."

Looking for new funding methods

Unions are looking at options such as automatic bank transfers or credit card options for members to pay dues after employers are forbidden by the new law from collecting the money for the unions, said Paulette Feld, vice president of the state employees union.


Union staff members and local stewards will be kept busy collecting dues and organizing for annual elections, Feld said.

"It's going to be a lot effort and money," Feld said.

Because the law removes the union's role in handling disputes between workers and managers, stewards may have more time to help with the new tasks, she said.

But she predicted that workplaces will become less efficient and harder to manage without union leaders to explain rules to employees and act as a mediator between workers and managers.

Bernfeld said the popular perception of unions only making things harder for employers misses the fact that unions also help create consensus among workers and a structure for working out disputes with managers.

"Whether you were on the union side or the management side, you knew what the rules were. Now you won't," Bernfeld said.

Bernfeld and others expressed confidence that widespread outrage over repeal of the state labor laws and imposition of the annual certification requirement will motivate members to vote for their unions and pay their dues.

"Many people have taken these rights for granted, and that's changed in a very short time," Bernfeld said.


"We were here before there was a law, and we were here when the law was here for a long period of stability and peace, and we're going to be here if the law is eliminated," Bernfeld said.

Copyright (c) 2011, The Wisconsin State Journal

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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