Imagine a one page collective agreement. It has one thing on it – your wage.
At that, your union bargaining team is prohibited from negotiating a settlement above the present rate of the Consumer Price Index, regardless of where your wages are comparative to others. Only a public referendum could approve a larger increase.
There’s no grievance procedure. Vacation, benefits and pension are all decided unilaterally by the employer, as is the terms of severance. It is not collective bargaining but collective begging for most terms and conditions.
This is the situation public sector workers in Wisconsin are facing as last year’s massive demonstrations culminate in a recall vote for Governor Scott Walker in June. Tens of thousands have quit, walking away from one of a handful of States that is still experiencing negative job growth.
According to Paul Secunda, a labour law professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee, even if the recall is successful, it is unlikely the reviled anti-labour Act 10 will be reversed given gerrymandering by the Republicans who overwhelmingly control the State House of Assembly.
Secunda spoke last night as a guest of Ryerson University’s Centre for Labour Management Relations.
Not all Wisconsin public sector workers share these limitations – firefighters, police and paramedics are exempted. All were considered supporters of Walker, but took to the streets with their public service colleagues to protest the anti-labour legislation.
A court decision recently overturned provisions that would eliminate dues check off and make unions recertify every year – two conditions that had absolutely nothing to do with the State’s finances, the rationale for Walker’s legislation. Secunda believes that these items may once again be lost in the appeals process given Republican control of the federal courts.
Clearly Walker intended to make unionization impossible in his State. If recertification is overturned, unions would require 50 per cent plus one of all members – not just voting members – to continue on.
Secunda says that while much of the focus was on Wisconsin, similar anti-labour legislation was also emerging in States from Ohio to Florida. The similarity is no coincidence. There is an organization in the United States called ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) that drafts right wing legislation for the States to implement.
“As the Monty Python movie says, ‘we’re not quite dead yet,” says Secunda. Progressive lawyers are countering ALEC with ALICE, an organization intended to draft sample progressive legislation.
Secunda says that during this attack the labour movement has worked well together, despite a near impossible task. In addition to filling the streets and occupying the legislature in Madison, Wisconsin, labour has worked on a variety of strategies, including working with Democrat Senators to flee the State to deny Governor Walker the ability to get the quorum he needed. They have also launched a legal challenge to Act 10.
In Ohio similar legislation was struck down in a State referendum.
Where does this end? Secunda spoke about a growing class of precarious workers who are being continually pushed to the edge.
“How long can you be kicked when you’re down?” he asks, wondering about the limits to a polarized political system where the moderate middle is quickly disappearing.
Secunda asks, do you know who Scott Walker contacted first before introducing his Act? The answer: The National Guard. Walker anticipated his “bomb” would result in a general strike, something Secunda himself advocated for.
Instead not a single person was ever arrested.
So what did Walker gain?
The State is still in deficit, largely dictated by the corporate tax cuts he brought in with the anti-labour legislation.
It is one of five states that experienced negative job growth last year.
Secunda says there was “an uprecedented run to the exits” — between 15,000 and 20,000 people have left their public sector jobs in Wisconsin. At the University law school library, almost all the staff left at the same time.
The loss of a rational dispute mechanism through the collective agreements has meant a much more chaotic labour relations environment. When people are outside of unions, it is a lot more difficult to regulate civil disobedience, he says.
He expressed disappointment with President Obama, who despite a 100,000 people in the streets, never came to Wisconsin during the upheaval. He pointed to one placard that read” “Obama, we could use a little help here.”
Could the same thing happen here in Ontario?
Secunda deferred to others in the room, but pointed out that the labour relations environment was very different in Canada. We also had the Charter of Rights, turning 30 years old today. Canada also is signatory to international conventions, including one to respect the right to collective bargaining.
But still there are similarities, including attacks here on the public sector and the bid to curb public sector wages. Like Wisconsin, Ontario remains wedded to the idea of corporate tax cuts despite any proof that it stimulates economic activity.
Like the United States, Canada has also seen a decline of private sector unions, leaving a significant imbalance between private and public sectors.
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