Sunday, March 11, 2012

Issue #53- Voting and Act 10

What This Is…
Issue #53- March 11, 2012
In this issue: Voting Information and Act 10 Information and Analysis

Voting Information…
Voting is a basic right and a fundamental responsibility in our democratic society.  Citizen participation is vital to the success of any real democracy and voting is at the core of our belief that individuals can have a say in the running of our government.  Here in the United States the right to vote has been portrayed, not only as a political action, but also as a route to improving social and economic status.  As Lyndon Johnson said, The vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men. 

Over our history we've seen tremendous conflicts rage over who should be allowed to vote.  It has been a struggle for different groups to "earn" their right to exercise their natural rights at the ballot box.  Unfortunately, recent history serves to remind us that no political, economic or social conflict is ever "solved" in any permanent fashion.  Instead we see cycles where the pendulum of public policy and opinion swings back and forth.  Here in Wisconsin the swing has been extreme and quick paced. 

In the past year Wisconsin has seen the passage of one of the most restrictive voter ID laws in the nation.  The reason behind the law seems to be relatively clear, the GOP benefits when fewer people vote.  It has been a political strategy used by Republicans and endorsed by their supporters.  As conservative activist Paul Weyrich said in 1980, "I don't want everybody to vote.  As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down."  Weyrich and other influential supporters of the GOP have been active in promoting the restrictions on voting that have been enacted in recent years.  They have played on a fundamental fear of fraud and used racism and sexism as tools to build support for their attack on the rights of citizens to participate in politics. 

However, the citizens of Wisconsin have not simply accepted the idea that voter ID is a good idea or that it is even necessary.  The backlash against voter ID has been strong and has been mainly focused on legal appeals.  Until GOP control of the legislative and executive branch is changed it is difficult to see any other way to counter this policy.        

While this injunction is good news for the immediate future, the challenges to voting rights are not eliminated.  There will be appeals and of course we know what any decision made by the Wisconsin Supreme Court will look like.  At the very least what this injunction does is buy more time for us to get people registered and prepared to vote.  We need to make sure that people understand the importance of the elections that are coming up in 2012.  The election cycle starts in April with local elections and continues through the recalls (hopefully in early summer) and culminates with the presidential election in November.  Success in these elections can give us the strength we need to roll back the tide of restrictions on our basic rights.

However, it is important to understand the laws as they are currently written so that we are not caught flat-footed if our legal remedies fail us.     

The upcoming local elections, held on April 3, are of great importance.  Here in Madison a great deal of attention will be focused on the races for two school board seats.  Because the election falls during the Madison Public School's Spring Break, educators who are traveling should be sure to get their absentee ballots so that their votes will be counted.  It is my understanding that March 20th is the last day that you can vote absentee in the Clerk's Office.  You can also request absentee ballots through the mail.

Union Rights Are Under Attack…
This weekend we "celebrate" the anniversary of the passage of Act 10, the infamous legislation that stripped away the rights of many public workers here in Wisconsin.  This bill has been one of the centerpieces in the battle that has raged here for the last year.  Its passage was controversial and it has been the subject of legal challenges as well as the obvious lightning rod for the political storm that rages here.      

What Is Act 10?
For a piece of legislation that has received so much attention it is somewhat surprising that the details of this bill are frequently not known or well understood.  There are many misconceptions and the full impact of the bill isn't often grasped, even by people who are directly affected by it.  The following information is my (non expert) take on the bill and its effects based on a few classes I've taken and a year of living through its effects.      

Prior to Act 10's implementation there were specific rules that governed the relationship between an employer and its organized employees.  These rules were established through statutes and legal precedent.  Both employer and employee had rights and responsibilities under the previous laws.  Among these rights and responsibilities were:
-An employees right to bargain collectively through representatives of their choosing, or a right to refrain from engaging in such activities.
-Employers couldn't discriminate based on union membership or attitudes.
-Employers had to bargain in good faith and employees had the same duty.
-Both parties had access to an arbitration process and were required to implement the decisions of arbitrators. 

It may surprise many people that these rights and mandates continue to exist under Act 10.  This gives Walker and his supporters the opportunity to say that they are not restricting anyone's right to join a union.  However, it doesn't give the full picture.  These rights and mandates are only as potent as the employees ability to organize and that the employee has something to bargain for.  That gets to the heart of what Act 10 does to public workers in Wisconsin.  While the law doesn't exactly eliminate many of the basic rights of workers to unionize it significantly changes important facets of the process and by doing so indirectly (but with intent) significantly impacts the ability of public workers to organize and bargain.  It also is obviously written to drive a wedge between union supporters and other workers.  The law does this in many ways, some subtle and some not as subtle.

Union Formation: Prior to Act 10, employees could be formed if a majority of voting employees supported the process and the union remained in place until employees voted to decertify the union.  In the post Act 10 world unions must vote annually to recertify.  An election that they must pay for and which requires significant organization and potential cost.  A union is only recertified if a majority of all represented employees vote in favor of the union.  Other aspects of Act 10 that further damage union organization are the prohibition of Fair Share agreements.  The act eliminates the ability of unions to have dues collected through deductions on paychecks.  Another facet clearly designed to divide employees from their union is the fact that non-unionized workers can receive higher pay increases without the municipality going through a referendum process.     

Bargaining: The topics that could be bargained about were divided into 3 categories, mandatory (wages, hours, conditions of employment), permissive and prohibited.  Prior to Act 10 the mandatory and permissive categories included a large number of items.  Things like pensions, insurance, grievance procedures and discipline, vacations and many more were open for negotiation.  After Act 10 every topic is prohibited except an increase in base wage (and only base wage, not things like merit pay or overtime) up to the consumer price index.  In addition the law puts restrictions on employers ability to pay more than 88% of health insurance premiums and prohibits payments to the Wisconsin Retirement System.  It should be noted that public safety employees face a less drastic environment in many ways.  (Information about how the CPI is actually not an accurate way to gauge economic costs.  This means that any wages negotiated using this will fall behind inflation and other increases in costs of living.)

Dispute Resolution Process: Once again there were set procedures that allowed for relatively peaceful dispute resolution to occur.  If parties involved were unable to come to an agreement there was a process that went through mediation and arbitration steps that resulted in settlements based on a variety of criteria.  After Act 10 most public workers still have access to mediation.  However, if mediation fails or if the employer appeals the decision the final power rests in the governing body of the municipality.  Strikes are now illegal for all public employees and even calling in sick (like Madison teachers did last February) can be considered illegal.  Act 10 doesn't change any of the other existing employment laws like worker's compensation, OSHA regulations or family and medical leave laws.  These are often part of Federal policy or larger civil service legislation.

Why Attack Public Sector Unions?
As you can see, the changes in employee rights under Act 10 are drastic and the legislation was an obvious effort to eliminate public sector unions in Wisconsin. 
While Republicans would have us believe that their only intention in passing Act 10 was to reign in the out-of-control spending driven by the costs created by public sector unions, there may very well be other reasons for attacking public worker's rights as well.  Act 10 certainly goes a long way toward eliminating public sector unions, but it would also appear that the bill had other consequences that I believe were probably intended by the designers. 

Act 10 was designed to divide workers by pitting public employees vs. private.  It essentially forced public workers to defend the rights and privileges that they have earned over the years during a time when all workers are suffering through an extremely difficult economic period.  The GOP framed the debate by accenting and exaggerating the wages and benefits available to public workers.  They ignored the reality that for many public sector bargaining units the "Cadillac Benefit Packages" that their members receive were the result of trading wages for those benefits.  Republicans knew that by highlighting what public workers got they could build support in their base among members who have been harmed by the recent economic downturns.

By dividing workers the GOP could maintain their stranglehold on power here in Wisconsin.  The number of employees will always outnumber the number of employers.  This fact combined with the concept of "one person, one vote", means that any anti-worker administration must find ways to separate workers from each other.  Republicans have done a masterful job of getting some citizens to vote against their best interest through the focus on divisive politics and social issues.

Here in Wisconsin about 50% of the public work force is unionized.  This contrasts with around 7% of the private sector employees.  Clearly the GOP felt a need to attack this large base of union strength.  Wisconsin has a relatively long history of strong public employee unions and they have had an impact on public policy here.  While one could make the case that union membership in the private sector has been slowly withering away for a variety of reasons, public union membership has for the most part remained relatively strong.  Once public sector union power is weakened it allows for GOP leaders to push other legislation forward (like Right to Work) which will further erode union membership.        

One could make the case that the attack on unions and worker rights is part of a larger GOP strategy to consolidate power as the demographics of the United States change.  The change in population presents a threat to the established upper class and their established control of political, economic and social power. 
Union membership provides organization and a voice for groups that have not had access to, or influence on decision making at the highest (or in many cases, any) levels.  A look at the membership statistics for unions shows a higher concentration of these underrepresented groups.  Racism, ageism, sexism all have an influence in the GOP's war on labor.

The GOP has good reason to fear organized labor's political power.  While the recent struggles in Wisconsin are about much more than simply labor rights, there is no doubt that the recall efforts and other resistance to Walker's agenda don't reach the level they have without union organization.  Political movements require organization, leadership, time and money.  All things that individual workers don't have in large enough quantities to combat the influence of a few wealthy individuals.  A PAC or other political donation from a union represents the collective input of many individuals.  Many of the conservative organizations that contribute large sums are driven by a small number of people.  If union power is broken then the wealthy few will have virtually uncontested influence on our political process.

It's not just about political power either.  The economic reality is, that with a unionized workforce of any size or influence, wages and benefits are higher than if the union influence is removed.  As union membership has declined the overall value of worker's compensation (wages and benefits) declines as well.  Without unions our workforce is unable to exert the influence necessary to maintain quality jobs.  Jobs that allow for a worker to support themselves and their families while improving their overall quality of life.  Without any force to check the power of management workers are at the mercy of forces they can't control.  This does not create a positive situation for anyone, just look at our nation's history and see the examples of conflict and upheaval created when one group gains a monopoly on power.

Another consequence of the attack on worker's rights is to change the tone and subject of our political discourse.  Public education provides an example of this.  Because educators are in a battle for the survival of their profession as well as struggling to stay afloat financially (all as a result of Act 10 and other conservative legislation) the debate shifts in character.  Educators are faced with the reality that their ability to influence public policy around issues of education are being undermined. 

Educator unions have worked to create environments where educators are able to work in safety and are able to have a voice in how we deliver our "product" to our students.  By attacking the rights of educators to organize and collectively bargain the "nuts and bolts" of school district policy (hours, wages, benefits, grievance procedures, evaluations, class sizes, etc.) fall exclusively to school board decisions.  This means that organizations that are anti-public education/educators or who have a different agenda can unduly influence public schools by running candidates to represent their interests.  We will see an increased politicization of education under the new rules created by Act 10.  This is an arena that groups interested in privatizing schools is very capable and comfortable functioning in.  They have wanted to "get a piece of the pie" for a long time and the current climate provides them with an excellent opportunity.       

It may not be a stretch to say that there may be some personal motivations behind the attacks on public worker unions.  Governor Walker's relationship with unions in his previous positions has been rocky and conflict ridden.  His rhetoric about "union bosses" and other comments have fueled the clash here in Wisconsin.  Walker is not alone in his anti-union sentiments.  Organized labor is filled with individuals who have been a "thorn in the side" of many GOP leaders.  Control of all branches of Wisconsin government provided a great opportunity to strike back at them.
Questionable GOP Tactics
The passage of Act 10 violated the values of our state's democratic history to the core.  Part of living in a democracy is accepting the decisions reached by our elected representatives.  Our system of government is centered around the need to find compromise, and to follow a set of procedures to address grievances raised.  Democracy is typically a slow and often painful process.  Frequently decisions are reached which are not necessarily "perfect" but which are revisited over time in an effort to reach the most positive result possible.    

Act 10 is a controversial piece of legislation for many reasons.  Not the least of which is the questionable need for legislation of its type.  Much has been made of the state's budget "crisis" and the controversy continues over whether Wisconsin really is in as dire a state as Walker would have us believe.  Economic indicators are always subject to interpretation and GOP leaders have changed their tune depending on their goals.  For example, our overall budget situation is fairly similar this year and Governor Walker stated that there was no need for any additional legislation under our current conditions.  It is difficult to make a strong case that Act 10 really helps solve our budget problems.  Instead it appears to be more of an effort to gain political advantage than a way to help improve our state.    

The way that Act 10 was passed set up a hullabaloo, whether because of the lack of debate, the late night theatrics or the subsequent legal wrangling.  Unfortunately for Wisconsin the current leadership of the GOP seems intent on using this form of government on a consistent basis.  After all, it worked for a widely controversial bill like Act 10, why not use it all the time.  Every effort is made to try and rush legislation through without following protocol or allowing input from people outside the GOP's power structure.  We've seen restrictions on public debate (through inconvenient meeting times/locations, closing debate early or other methods) used to help limit dissenting opinions.  Access to public buildings and public demonstrations have been curtailed.  12:01 AM has become a popular time to reconvene the legislature to take up issues.  Through it all conservatives know that they can rely on the Supreme Court to deliver a 4-3 decision in their favor should anyone challenge their actions in our judicial system.     

The very idea that Scott Walker would have been our governor had he run on the issue of collective bargaining is open to debate.  No one can doubt the power of running on a fiscally conservative agenda using a seemingly grassroots effort in today's political environment.  However, fiscally conservative here in Wisconsin has not been synonymous with breaking unions.  Walker knew that during the election and therefore didn't make an issue of it during his campaign.  Once elected he took the opportunity offered by the majority control of all branches and tried to force an agenda on the people of Wisconsin.  An agenda that most Wisconsinites don't support.

Are Unions a Right or a Privilege?
Terms like worker's rights and other rights are used frequently in the debate around unions and labor relations.  Rights are an important concept in America and have played a large role in creating our nation and in the development of our political and social policies over time.  Of course there exists significant controversy over what is, or isn't, a "right" and who should enjoy "rights" in our society.  To some degree we have expanded our definition of what is a "right" and have thereby diluted the significance of our basic rights.

It is important that we recognize the importance of deciding what "rights" we enjoy by virtue of being a part of our society.  We can all agree on the basics like the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, or can we?  "Rights" have evolved and changed over time, for example our ability to exercise our right to vote has undergone significant transformation from 1787 to 2012.  The difficulty in defining terms and concepts associated with our "rights" often presents legal and ethical challenges, especially in a diverse and quickly changing society.

While this could be a topic for volumes and volumes the reality is that we must work together as a society to define what we value most.  In doing so we return to the ongoing division between our economic and moral goals.  Labor rights exist right in the center of this ongoing struggle.  Wisconsin's current difficulties will have a significant impact on the future shaping of what our "rights" are regarding our workplace and our ability to organize to influence the conditions we work under.

However, we can't ignore the fact that Act 10 specifically singles out individual groups and targets our ability to organize.  There seems to be a clear intent to not actually say that unions can't exist, instead the bill just creates an environment where unions are actively discouraged and rendered powerless.  How do workers fight this type of legislation?  It seems clear to me that by setting up restrictions like the ones in Act 10 the GOP has violated public worker's civil rights.  How this will play out in the courts remains to be seen.   

While I recognize the necessity of having a legal process to define many of our human interactions that doesn't change the fact that there exists a moral code outside of the law that people need to respect.  For example, we can see the need for protections from unreasonable search and seizure guaranteed by the Constitution's Bill of Rights.  However, at the same time we can also be unhappy when that protection is used to free a criminal from punishment.  In the same way I feel that Act 10 is not a morally correct piece of legislation.  By targeting specific groups and discriminating against organized workers the GOP is trying to force an agenda on our society that I feel is harmful to all of us.

Are Unions Necessary?
I have an obvious opinion about this question.  I feel that because all people are self-interested to some degree we must have protections like government and unions to ensure that all of us have a say in our society.  Without collective efforts, only the most wealthy and powerful have a voice that matters.  This leaves a majority of citizens without any meaningful recourse in the legal, economic or political process.  Unions provide support and vital services that promote positive work environments and allow workers to perform their jobs at a higher level.

When looking at educator unions more specifically I see a huge need for organized labor.  Educators deal with a huge variety of legal issues that are virtually impossible to stay fully informed on.  We are governed by Federal, state and local laws along with policies that are different in many ways.  Educators need to spend their time improving their educational practices instead of spending time being lawyers. 

Education policy in the bigger picture impacts our entire society.  However, at the same time each classroom has its own needs and culture.  Educators need to be involved in the big picture of politics, but also need to put their primary emphasis on the students they work with.  If we don't have union protection we need to expand our focus and spend more time on issues outside of direct classroom instruction.  Most educators I know got into education to help students achieve, by eliminating collective bargaining we dilute the power that individual educators have.    

How Has Act 10 Affected Wisconsin Workers?
Wisconsin's public sector workers responded to the challenge issued by the GOP in historic fashion.  From huge protests to recalling elected officials the efforts have impacted public policy and have set a generally positive tone in a debate that could have been incredibly ugly.  I'm sure I'm not alone when I express the relief that we've made it this far into the conflict without significant violence or other upheaval. 

However, the struggle is far from over.  The difficulty in living through "interesting times" is that we don't know how things turn out.  I remain hopeful that we can continue to use existing political and legal remedies to address the issues that confront us.  The vast majority of Wisconsinites remain committed to restoring the balance of power here through elections, legal actions and other similar actions.    

At the same time there is tremendous fear about the future.  We all know how difficult it is to change policy once it is in place without revolutionary or other drastic measures.  What happens if the GOP is ousted from power and the resulting administration simply repeats the undemocratic actions of Walker's administration.  Do we set ourselves on a path of division that leads to a disintegration of democratic ideals?  However, if we work within the system how long will it take to repair and how much additional damage will be done to our most vulnerable citizens? 

There are many obvious effects that Act 10 has had on Wisconsin's public workers.  Among them are the reductions in wages.  My family's "Walker Toll" to date is $5,251.37.  Not an easy amount to overcome for any family.  This reduction in income not only impacts my family directly, but also all the businesses we frequent.  Those of us in the middle and working classes typically spend most of our income and that means that the pay reductions are not put into the local economy. 

The other impacts of Act 10 include people leaving public service.  Many qualified employees with vast experience have retired or moved to other jobs.  In addition to veteran employees leaving I also know of many younger employees who can't afford to remain public employees.  It is painful to watch committed educators grapple with the challenge of staying employed in education while trying to start a new family, buy a home or engage in other activities that are considered part of being middle class.  These cuts to wages have hit our lower paid employees hardest and the potential for additional health insurance and/or pension costs loom for all of us.

The uncertainty in employment conditions also takes its toll.  I can only speak to the situation in education, but the effects of Act 10 have been devastating.  Educators now face the possibility of changes in working conditions imposed by people who frequently don't understand what works or doesn't work in schools.  In Madison we have already had to go to the school board to protest changes in elementary planning time that were virtually unworkable for educators, families and students.  While we were successful in changing this policy the fear is that once collective bargaining ends for Madison educators there will be more changes of a similar type ahead.  As a Madison educator I can't forget that we are still beneficiaries of a powerful union and a mostly supportive community.  Other educators in other places are already feeling the effects of the loss of their collective bargaining rights. 

While not easy to quantify, the toll on our morale because of the portrayal of educators and public employees in the media can't be ignored.  Education issues and educator unions are misrepresented in all types of media.  The constant battle to try and get our point of view out is wearing and affects our spirits as we deal with the challenges of a very difficult job.  In the Rickert piece linked above there are some clear examples of the difficulty we face in getting accurate information out.  Mr. Rickert has "covered" the ongoing battle in Madison and still can't get accurate information about Act 10 in his work.  He states that educators will be able to negotiate for pay and benefits, but that isn't the case.  His editorial demonstrates the inaccurate and inflammatory information that is put out in the media about educators portraying us as greedy and self-interested.  The idea that educators only worry about job conditions at the expense of our students is misleading and creates a public perception of educators and education that leads to further divisions in the community.    

We must work to promote unions with our membership.  Many employees don't realize all that unions do for them.  Those that think unions only exist to negotiate basic wages and benefits are missing the bigger picture of what unions provide.  Even with limited bargaining power a union can offer organization, support and solidarity that helps workers maintain their power in the workplace. 

Does the GOP really care about employment and workers?
All of these negatives would be easier to take if I felt that the GOP's actions were truly motivated by a desire to improve Wisconsin for all of its citizens.  I accept that part of being a citizen in a democracy is accepting the decisions of my elected officials even when I disagree with them.  However, given the unethical nature of the GOP's actions and the apparent disregard for the common citizen I find myself wholeheartedly supporting the efforts to reclaim Wisconsin's government through recalls, protests and other necessary means. 

Republican rhetoric all sounds like the intent is on growing our economy, protecting the rights of citizens and improving areas like education.  However, it is difficult to believe that this is truly the case when one looks carefully at the overall pattern of actions and attends carefully to the actual words spoken/written by GOP leaders. 

The mining legislation provides continuing examples of the disconnect between rhetoric and reality.  On one hand the GOP leaders say that they are interested in creating jobs in a depressed area of Wisconsin.  The point to the use of unionized labor and the potential for economic growth as evidence of their positive intent. 
This is contrasted with the lack of public input, the controversy over the authorship of the bill and changes in environmental regulations that point towards the beneficiaries of the legislation being someone other than the citizens of Wisconsin.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the good news that Wisconsin gained jobs in the latest report released this week.  Both parties are working to spin this news in a way that benefits their viewpoint, but the reality is that growth in employment is good for the citizens of Wisconsin.  However, the good news shouldn't change the underlying facts here.  We still face an economy that is not improving as well as the rest of the nation's.  We also need to look carefully at what types of jobs are being created.  It is a fine line between adding jobs at any cost and perpetuating a system where the term "working poor" is applicable to many people.

1 comment:

  1. Andy, the last day for in person (at the clerk's office) absentee voting for the April 3rd election is March 30. The new voter ID law restricts this further than it was before where you could vote at the clerk's office up to the day before an election. See for details