The few hundred unionized workers who tend to aging buildings at UW-Madison and other University of Wisconsin campuses are frustrated, finding themselves once again in a long, drawn-out negotiation fighting for a 2% inflationary raise.
And this time, in an unusual twist resulting from the anti-union 2011 Act 10 law, their efforts will likely result in a lower pay boost than what other nonunion university employees receive.
At a meeting earlier this month, the UW System Board of Regents approved the raise for the roughly 300 unionized, skilled trades employees with the condition that it take effect this past Jan. 6 — meaning the board is unwilling to pay back the difference in the trades workers’ base wages for about six months spent negotiating with UW System and UW-Madison dating back to July 1. That’s in contrast to three previous years of raises when the board offered back pay to when negotiations began.
Other UW System employees received two separate 2% raises in July and January, marking possibly the first time nonunion employees received a larger pay increase than union members, according to Dave Branson, executive director of the Building and Construction Trades Council of South Central Wisconsin, which represents the UW trades people.
“They’re frustrated at the process,” Branson said. “They’re frustrated that they don’t get the same amount as non-represented employees. They’re frustrated by the whole system because their raises take so long to get. And when raises come later and later each year, they’re falling further and further behind.”
Act 10 changes
The Regents took up the pay raise April 5, about four months later in the fiscal year than the previous year’s negotiation, leading the trades union to accuse the UW System of stalling.
“For them to drag their feet on a 2% raise increase, it’s frustrating for all of us,” said UW-Madison electrician Paul Dowd, who has worked for the university since 2002.
UW-Madison spokesman John Lucas said this year’s discussion began in July and the university’s offer wasn’t ratified by the trades union until February.
The trades employees’ raise still needs approval from a legislative committee, the Assembly, the Senate and the governor.
Last year’s negotiation, when the Regents approved a 1% raise dating back to December 2017, wasn’t fully approved by the other bodies until late June — just days before the start of another fiscal year and another round of negotiating.
Their struggle for modest cost-of-living raises is the new normal in the aftermath of Act 10, former Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s signature law that limits how much a public-sector union can negotiate in base wage increases to the rate of inflation and eliminates their ability to negotiate multi-year agreements, among other changes.
Michael Jahr, senior vice president for the conservative think tank Badger Institute, said the organization has not studied the trades employees’ wages in the wake of Act 10. Speaking generally to the law’s intent, he said Act 10 provides government with greater flexibility on how to spend money, which he said allowed local school districts to redirect money from employees’ fringe benefits to go toward the classroom and students.
David Nack, a UW-Madison professor in the School for Workers who is studying organized labor’s effort to re-create itself since Act 10, said a psychological element has become part of the bargaining process for rank-and-file members.
“You’re always behind the 8-ball,” he said of unions finding themselves in a perpetual bargaining situation. “You never catch up to where you should be in bargaining.”
A spokeswoman for Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who did not introduce any provisions rolling back Act 10 in his 2019-21 budget proposal, did not respond to a request for comment.
All UW-Madison trades employees — the bricklayers, the painters, the carpenters and plumbers, the sheet metal workers and others — are unionized in the only collective bargaining unit left on campus.
They are the behind-the-scenes employees making sure buildings stay warm in the winters and cool in the summers. Some worked around the clock addressing the “unprecedented” flooding of 28 UW-Madison buildings in the aftermath of February’s polar vortex.
UW System documents cite increasing concern from campuses on the loss of trades employees in recent years, the challenge to maintain aging infrastructure and the need to remain competitive with wages.
Skilled trades employees can make $20,000 to $30,000 more annually in the private sector, Branson said.
UW System and UW-Madison representatives provided statements that said they value the trades employees who perform critical jobs on campuses.
“Because negotiated contracts are subject to legislative approval, coordinating such agreements to be compatible with budget and policy considerations is critical,” UW System spokesman Mark Pitsch said in response to a list of questions, including why back pay isn’t being offered to the trades employees this year.
The 2% raise will cost the UW System about $85,000 and UW-Madison about $375,000, according to Board of Regents documents.
In December, the Regents approved raising pay scales for top UW System executives at percentages ranging from 11% to 27%. Those raises do not require approval from the Legislature.
Some in the union discreetly email each other links to news stories with headlines such as “UW-Madison chancellor receives $73K raise“ and “UW Regents approve raising UW System president salary range 23%.” (UW System President Ray Cross will decline the pay raise, according to Pitsch.)
“And all we can go for is peanuts here and we’re struggling for that,” said UW-Madison steamfitter Brent Emery. “Our hands are tied and we’re frustrated.”
In the 2016 and 2017 fiscal years, the union was unable to negotiate for any kind of pay increase.
UW System officials argued that while no raise may not feel fair, it was “equitable” because no other UW System employee groups were receiving wage increases then either, according to 2015 Board of Regent meeting minutes.
The trades employees continue to recertify as a union — the annual election process to renew their status required by Act 10 — in high numbers out of fear that disbanding would open up the door for UW campuses to reclassify their positions to lower-paid maintenance staff, Branson said.
For Dowd, being a union member is a point of pride. He sees the organized labor movement as what led to improved wages and working conditions for all employees, not just union members. And he is grateful for the five-year electrical apprenticeship where he learned his craft. He says non-union employees go through a less intense training program and are more likely to make mistakes and less likely to complete projects on time.
“Unions have gotten a black eye over the years for being greedy,” he said. “We’re just asking for a fair living wage.”
Union members will likely earn less than non-represented employees in the next fiscal year as well.
The board approved a plan to raise all UW System employees’ pay by 3% over each of the next two fiscal years. It requires both the approval of the Joint Committee on Employment Relations and Gov. Tony Evers, but not the Legislature.
Building Trades Council members are ineligible for the raise. The highest amount they can bargain for next fiscal year is 2.4%.
And they’re still working on this year’s raise, with the request heading next to the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Employment Relations.
The committee has yet to schedule a meeting.