Labor Pains In Wisconsin: Teachers Union Calls For Return To Work

Tensions remained high in Wisconsin on Sunday as Gov. Scott Walker (R) remained in a standoff with state public employees unions and Democratic legislators over a proposal that would not only require greater employee contributions to state benefits packages but also strip state employees of most of their collective bargaining and union rights.

In one development, the President of the Wisconsin Law Enforcement Association, who is also a member of the Wisconsin Trooper’s Association, created a stir by issuing a statement repudiating the Trooper’s Association’s endorsement of Governor Walker. While the two groups are not formally affiliated, they have overlapping memberships. The Trooper’s Association’s members are also members of the WLEA, while the WLEA is also made up many other law enforcement officers. Fuller’s statement prompted a press report from the local CBS affiliate in Madison which incorrectly suggested that the WLEA itself had repudiated an earlier endorsement — a report picked up by TPM. In response, Fuller pulled his statement from the union web site.

In another development, the head of the state’s largest teachers union called upon teachers — many of whom have called in sick over the past week and shut down schools throughout the state — to return to work this week. “It’s time for educators to be back in the classroom with the students,” Wisconsin Education Association Council president Mary Bell told reports in a teleconference, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reports. However, Bell has also said that teachers who have the day off for President’s Day should come to Madison to continue the protests against Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s budget plan.

“We are speaking about Monday and Tuesday,” Bell added. “I have no idea where things will be next week. But we are saying it is time for educators to be back in the classroom with their students. And it will be a continuing of the actions in Madison in communities around the state and we will continue to speak with our members and we will continue to advocate with legislators and whatever comes next will be determined by the actions we see.”Meanwhile, Walker appeared this morning on Fox News Sunday, and had some very harsh words for the unions’ benefits packages.

“If we’re going to be in this together, (cut) our $3.6 billion budget deficit, it’s going to take a whole lot more than just employee contributions when it comes to pensions and health care,” Walker said. “But it’s got to be a piece of the puzzle because as I saw at the local level, it’s like a virus that eats up more and more of the budget if you don’t get it under control.”

Wisconsin has been in a political crisis since Tuesday, when tens of thousands of protestors descended on the state Capitol. Many schools have closed across the state since Wednesday, due to teachers calling in sick in large numbers. Then on Thursday, the minority state Senate Democrats left the state in order to block the three-fifths quorum necessary to pass Walker’s budget. In addition, Over 50,000 people swamped the Capitol Saturday, the vast majority of them opposed to the plan.

Under Walker’s plan, as TPM has reported, most state workers would no longer be able to negotiate for better pensions or health benefits or anything other than higher salaries, which couldn’t rise at a quicker pace than the Consumer Price Index. Walker and state Republican leaders have said the plan to limit the collective bargaining rights of state employees is necessary to deal with the state’s budget shortfall.

The budget proposal includes other provisions to strip the public employee unions of power, as well — notably getting rid of the state’s process of automatically collecting compulsory union dues from state paychecks. Furthermore, the proposal would require the unions to win a new certification election every year in order to maintain their representation.

According to the Associated Press: “The proposal would effectively remove unions’ right to negotiate in any meaningful way. Local law enforcement and fire employees, as well as state troopers and inspectors would be exempt.”

The original version of this post incorrectly stated that the WLEA had endorsed Gov. Walker’s 2010 candidacy. We regret the error.