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End of contracts for public employee unions

In this file photo, a union supporter raises his fist in opposition to the governor's bill, now declared unconstitutional, to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many public workers during protests at the state Capitol.

This story appeared first in the Sunday edition of the Wisconsin State Journal newspaper.

In Mauston, it’s easier for the School District to fire teachers. In Jefferson County, seniority no longer determines who is laid off or promoted. In Waukesha County, road maintenance workers can’t count on overtime pay when they work odd hours. In New Berlin, teachers work longer days and can wear school sweatshirts on only a limited number of days.

Across Wisconsin, school districts and local governments are replacing union contracts with policy manuals that give public administrators a clear upper hand for the first time in 50 years under a state law that essentially ends union rights for most public employees.

Many local officials say they are moving cautiously to avoid upsetting teachers, snowplow drivers and others who provide services the public expects, but plenty of changes have been made since June when Gov. Scott Walker and other Republicans enacted the law after unprecedented protests at the Capitol.

“Things are moving fairly quickly in places where the contracts are up,” said Dan Thompson, executive director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities.

The rules already have changed in hundreds of places where union contracts expired. Many more union pacts run out as soon as Dec. 31 for local government workers and June 30 for school district employees.

In the Madison area, some unions have contracts that will be in force into 2013, but they are hearing about what is happening elsewhere — and realizing they are next.

Just west of Madison, the clock on Iowa County union contracts will run down this week. More than 40 employees have retired or resigned since the law took effect, and many more are considering it amid discussions about rolling back benefits and changing work rules, said administrator Curt Kephart.

“They are clearly unhappy,” Kephart said. “I had meetings with them at work sites and those went very well, but now people are getting a little edgy and difficult to talk to again. ... I said let’s do it later when everything isn’t so heavily charged.”

Thompson said he knows of no group that is systematically tracking how officials in hundreds of jurisdictions are taking advantage of the biggest change in public sector operations since the 1970s, when state law was amended to allow binding arbitration to solve contract impasses and avoid strikes.

In dozens of interviews over the past three weeks, the State Journal found in many places local officials have made changes in pay, benefits and working conditions.

Grievance procedures change

The law required cuts in take-home pay to cover more retirement and health costs, and the Walker administration publicized instances in which local officials saved money, including by competitively bidding health insurance costs.

And as contracts lapse, the law requires new procedures for handling grievances that give the final say to local officials instead of arbitrators. Only major discipline, firing or workplace safety disputes can be appealed, and employers need to meet a lower standard of proof.

Public employees view the system as rigged, said Steve Cupery, a Brookfield-based staff representative for the Wisconsin Education Association Council union.

“They can handpick who the hearing officer is and they pay the hearing officer,” Cupery said. “Who pays the piper picks the tune.”

Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie said the system is designed to improve government.

In education, for example, local school administrators and boards will have a freer hand to reward or discipline teachers, he said.

“School boards, which consist of local community elected officials, now have the ability to make staffing decisions based on teacher performance and merit,” Werwie said in an email. “This will be good for Wisconsin schoolchildren. When unions claim that school boards engage in ‘rigging,’ they are attacking the very individuals who have stepped up to try and improve education for the children in their respective communities.”

Templates provided

Each school district, city, village and county government creates its own rules for pay, benefits and working conditions after contracts expire, but some are using templates provided by government associations and management consultants.

Common themes include elimination of practices that public administrators have wanted to remove from contracts for many years, such as seniority preferences, overtime rules, restrictions on work assignments and retirement payouts for unused sick days.

Jefferson County administrator Gary Petre said he no longer uses seniority to dictate who fills openings. And in the event of layoffs, workers with more seniority are no longer able to “bump” into jobs of less experienced workers, Petre said.

The change will ensure the ability to hire the very best workers and reduce the need to retrain employees who move into unfamiliar jobs after staff reductions, Petre said.

In Waukesha County, most road maintenance workers now work four 10-hour days to reduce the time spent each week setting up and tearing down work sites, said public works director Allison Bussler.

The county tried and failed for years to persuade the union to give up a provision requiring a five-day week, but now that the change has been made, most are happy with it, said Randy Monroe, the Teamsters representative for the union local.

It remains to be seen how plow drivers will react this winter when they are no longer paid overtime rates for any hours outside their 7 a.m.-3:30 p.m. shifts, Bussler said. New rules will allow the county to save money by sending them home after eight hours if they are called in to plow in the middle of the night, and premiums are no longer paid for being called in during off hours, she said.

Unlike other counties that have sought to cut overtime costs, Waukesha still pays time-and-a-half for weekend hours, even if they are part of a 40-hour week, Bussler said.

‘Transparency is key to ... trust’

Acceptance of the new work environment depends on how drastic the changes are and how they are presented, said Christina Brey, spokeswoman for WEAC, the state’s largest teachers union.

“Some are working with employees, some pulling language from contracts and putting it in the policy handbooks,” Brey said. “The others are using the top-down approach of, ‘Here’s your handbook, live with it.’”

Richland County Board members are working closely with union employees whose contracts will expire Dec. 31, and appear to be putting almost all the current contract provisions in the new handbook, said Diane Cox, vice-president of a bargaining unit for nurses and social workers.

“I was really very pleasantly surprised because I had heard so many horror stories from other places,” Cox said.

Some Richland County Board committee members had to be persuaded to work so closely with employees, but together they’ve created a proposal the board will vote on in January, said Sup. Jeanetta Kirkpatrick.

“Transparency is the key to building trust as we move forward,” Kirkpatrick said.

The Wisconsin Association of School Boards recommends involving employees and possibly members of the public early to avoid confrontations like those that erupted when the Greenfield and New Berlin school districts approved handbooks during the summer, said Barry Forbes, a lawyer for the association.

Large groups of teachers from several districts and opponents of unions fired up by talk radio hosts clashed with teachers as they addressed the board, Forbes said.

Some school board members want to be able to discuss handbooks in private, the way contracts were negotiated, but the law doesn’t allow that, Forbes said.

“When you think about other difficult decisions that a school board might make, for example closing a school building, it’s not unusual to get input from the public and hold public hearings,” Forbes said. “We advise them to particularly engage the employees because we know that the employees are interested and we know that after years of collective bargaining, there may be those who view the elimination of it as a way to make unilateral decisions, and in a way it is.”