The bill required what Walker called “modest healthcare and pension contributions” for state employees. In an online “brown bag lunch” series, Walker said the bill called for all state workers to contribute 5.8% of their pay for their pensions and contribute 12.6% of the cost of healthcare coverage. These provisions were projected to save $30 million.
“While tough budget choices certainly still lie ahead, both state and local units of government will not have to do any mass layoffs or direct service reductions because of the reforms contained in the budget repair bill,” Walker said in a statement in early March.
David Weimer, professor of political science and public affairs at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, says in an e-mail that state workers now contribute 6.2% of their health insurance costs, meaning that percentage would double.
“The unions had agreed to go along when they saw the governor would do away with collective-bargaining rights,” Weimer says.
Although Walker signed the bill March 11, it has not been published as law by the secretary of state because it's currently held up in the courts. It limits collective-bargaining rights for state workers—except police officers and firefighters—to negotiations about wages only. And then wages must be capped at the Consumer Price Index, according to Leslie Frane, director of the public services division at the Service Employees International Union.
“The members of our unions are strong advocates for affordable healthcare for everyone,” Frane says. “That's why we supported the Affordable Care Act. That's why we believe all workers in the private and public sector should have quality health benefits and a voice in the conversation about what those benefits will be.”
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, there are at least 51 collective-bargaining-related bills in 11 states across the country. For example, one bill in Hawaii would establish health-benefits trust funds for the bargaining unit; require public employers and unions to negotiate employers' contributions; change the impasse procedures for certain bargaining units; and also provide a right to strike on the issue of a public employer's contribution for health and other benefits.
In Michigan, one pending bill would allow the Legislature to regulate health benefits of public employees and officers, while another would create a health coverage plan for public employees and implement the plan. The latter would establish a statewide insurance pool for state and municipal employees as a way to streamline the current process, which includes several local contracts, according to state Rep. Tim Melton, a Democrat.
And in Rhode Island, a bill would require all state and local public employees to pay 25% of the premium costs of healthcare and dental benefits in any collective-bargaining agreement implemented on or after April 1 of this year or any extension effective as of that date.
According to the SEIU, bills are “actively moving” in Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan and Nebraska to limit public-sector collective-bargaining rights, while bills have passed in Idaho, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Oklahoma and Tennessee that remove collective-bargaining rights in some form.
In Wisconsin, the main issue continues to be the hurried procedure that led to the bill's passage in mid-March. Howard Schweber, an associate professor of political science at UW-Madison, says the budget was presented in two steps: the budget-repair bill and the budget. Legal battles have surrounded the former, which has an effect on the full budget.
“There was a protest and Democrats left the state,” Schweber says. “In their absence, Republicans removed one piece of the budget repair bill to eliminate the part about the state's debt and pushed it through. Normally, a bill is passed through the committee,” he says. “In this case, the Finance Committee passed it without Democratic participation, then it was passed by the Legislature.”
Legal challenges ensued, and in one case, Dane County Circuit Court Judge Maryann Sumi issued a temporary restraining order on March 18 to halt the bill from being published as law after she determined the process leading to the vote had violated the state's open-meetings law. “Ordinarily, this bill would have required 24 hours notice by the Wisconsin General Assembly Joint Finance Committee,” Schweber says. “There is a statutory provision that permits the Legislature to hold such a meeting with two hours notice. This had less than that: 1 hour and 50 minutes.”
Jill Anderson, the clerk in Sumi's office, says the briefs for the plaintiffs in the case were due April 27, while the defendants in the case—including Wisconsin State Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald and Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, both Republicans—have until May 18 to file theirs. The plaintiffs then have until May 23 to respond.
The Wisconsin Nurses Association “does not support the fast-track process that changes a long-standing state statute governing the collective-bargaining rights for public employees,” according to a statement from the association in mid-February. “If changes are needed, the process for discussion should occur with the usual and customary framework for which all legislative proposals that are policy in nature are addressed.”
As Wisconsin's budget battle continues to evolve, the SEIU's Frane says the loss of collective bargaining can have far-reaching implications in healthcare.
“In healthcare, collective bargaining contributes to better collaboration between employees and employers and that leads to better outcomes for patients,” Frane says. “In addition, organized workers can be better advocates for patients and also effective partners with employers advocating for better funding for needed services,” she says, referring to Medicare and Medicaid.
Ann Louise Tetreault echoes that sentiment. A registered nurse, Tetreault will mark 35 years at the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics, Madison, in August. She also serves as vice president of healthcare systems at SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin. Tetreault explained in an e-mail that while the change to health benefits is a cause for anxiety among nurses and therapists, the loss of collective-bargaining rights is even more significant.
“The responsibility and right to advocate for your patients and yourselves (good working conditions and a safe grievance procedure) encourage professional staff to speak up when ineffective orders, short staffing, mandatory overtime and medication errors need addressing with physicians and management,” Tetreault wrote in her message.