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CAPITOL PROTESTS packed rotunda file photo

Thousands fill the Capitol rotunda to protest Gov. Scott Walker's collective bargaining bill in this Feb. 16 file photo.

As state and local governments stopped collecting union dues from thousands of employees across Wisconsin this month, the unions ramped up drives to sign members up to pay dues directly to their unions.

The end of automatic dues collections for public employees who don't have contracts is one of the first concrete signs of the state's new collective bargaining law.

Leaders of the major unions say it's too early to talk about how many are paying by writing checks or arranging automatic withdrawals from bank accounts, but two locals contacted by the State Journal reported early successes and continuing efforts to win 100 percent participation.

The local representing Jefferson County highway workers reported 70 percent are on board with a $35 a month payment, while just under half of Grant County support service workers have chipped in the $35 to $40 a month their local has requested.

"The more we stand up and fight, the more we'll get," said Chris Marfilius, a trustee for Grant County's Local 918 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Marfilius said that some of her co-workers haven't signed up because they believe the union can't do much now that state law limits collective bargaining to cost of living raises, and forbids negotiations on anything else including sick days, work hours, overtime or grievance procedures.

Paying dues will help the union advocate for workers in public forums as local governments create new grievance procedures and consider changing benefits and working conditions, said Ed Sadlowski, an AFSCME Council 40 field representative who has been helping with union dues signups in Jefferson County. 

"The dues are important," Sadlowski said. "That's building power for the future, building a union."

"There are a lot of misconceptions," Marfilius said. "Some people who are waffling about the union are feeling like their jobs are in jeopardy if they speak out."

Ann Jenswold, president of AFSCME Local 655, said most of her 48 fellow Jefferson County highway workers are voluntarily paying dues.

"The union is standing strong, and it's a beautiful thing," Jenswold said. "We do have a couple of stragglers left."

At the state level, union leaders have been reluctant to put numbers on their membership drives, saying that many are just beginning in earnest because members have focused on recall elections that are the first step toward removing the Republican majority in the Capitol that passed the new labor law.

The law affects unions with expired contracts. 

For AFSCME Council 40, which represents 32,000 municipal workers outside Milwaukee County, that's about 3,000 workers now, and another 9,600 whose contracts run out on Jan. 1, said council director Rick Badger.

Also without contracts are 22,000 state workers, and members of about half the locals of the largest state's teachers union, the 92,000-member Wisconsin Education Association Council. More teachers contracts will expire next year.

The law removing union rights for most public sector workers went into effect on June 29 after an epic, months-long political battle, but the effects are unfolding slowly so that government officials have time to build an administrative system to replace the collective bargaining system that has been in force for decades.

For those without contracts, the next big changes are subtraction of 5.8 percent of their pay for pension premiums in August for government workers and in September for teachers. Some will also pay higher health care costs. 

The teachers unions will face certification votes in November, said Peter Davis, general counsel for the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission. State and local government union leaders say they probably won't seek state certification.

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