By: Loren Kaye
What are they fighting about in Wisconsin, and what might this mean for California?
The battle in Badger State is on many levels, but the closer you look, the less it seems to be about union members' benefits and the more it seems to be about union leaders' ability to mobilize organizational and political power.
Wisconsin public employees traditionally have had generous benefits. Their health care contributions have been about 5.6 percent of total premiums and they contribute only 0.2 percent of their monthly pay to their pension plans.
Governor Scott Walker is proposing to more than double state and school employee health care contributions to about 12.6 percent of premiums, but that still compares favorably to, say, California. According to the California Health Care Foundation, Californians paid 27 percent of the cost of premiums in 2010 for family coverage. California state employees pay about 20 percent of their health care premiums.
Governor Walker also proposes Wisconsin state employee pay 5.8 percent of their monthly pay into their pension plans.. Nationwide, the average private employee contribution from take-home pay for retirement was 7.5 percent, according to the Employee Benefits Research Institute. In California, state employees pay eight percent to 10 percent of their monthly pay to the pension program.
So the effect on union members is material, but certainly mild compared with private workers and even public workers in a tough-minded union stronghold like California.
But the effect on union bosses is more profound.
Governor Walker proposes major changes to the collective bargaining law. First, he would limit the scope of bargaining, making unions less relevant to improving their members' compensation and conditions:
•Collective bargaining for most public employees would be limited to wages, and would exclude benefits.
• Total wage increases would be capped based on the consumer price index, unless exceeded by voter referendum.
• Contracts would be limited to one year and wages would be frozen until the new contract is settled.
Second and most pertinent, the proposal would make it far more difficult for union leaders to marshal the financial resources to engage in political action to which many public employee unions have grown accustomed.
Collective bargaining units would be required to take annual votes to maintain certification as a union, with a majority of all members (not just voting members) required to recertify.
Employers would be prohibited from collecting union dues and members of collective bargaining units would not be required to pay dues.
Collective bargaining would be repealed for professors and academic staff at the University of Wisconsin.
These latter proposals go to the heart of union organizing and political influence, which explains the intensity of the opposition and the nationwide mobilization against these proposals.
Can this Midwest bonfire light up California? Unlikely, given the Democratic hegemony in Sacramento and the prohibitive obstacles to gaining approval for a statewide ballot measure threatening labor interests. No sweeping statewide anti-labor ballot measure has prevailed in California since before the ill-fated "right-to-work" measure sparked the fortunes of the Democratic Party in 1958.
But past may not always be prologue. After all, Wisconsin can lay claim as a birthplace more than a century ago to the Progressive movement, ushering in the first wave of labor and welfare laws. Seeing a reversal of fortune for labor in that state should remind us that the aspirations of rank and file often makes fools of the experts.
Loren Kaye, President of the California Foundation for Commerce and Education