News Column

Wisconsin Gov. Talks of Stripping Public Safety Union Rights

July 31, 2013
Wisconsin governor Scott Walker floated the idea of stripping union rights for public safety.
Wisconsin governor Scott Walker floated the idea of stripping union rights for public safety.

Gov. Scott Walker stirred things up Monday with talk about extending the state ban on public sector union rights to police and firefighters, before downplaying the idea Tuesday.

Walker and Republican lawmakers exempted police and firefighters from Act 10 of 2011, saying that they couldn't risk strikes by public safety personnel.

At a public event in Milwaukee on Monday, Walker said he would consider expanding the law, and that police and fire workers may now be willing to forgo union rights taken from other government workers -- collective bargaining, paycheck dues withdrawals and arbitration to settle disputes with management.

"I think now, for those areas, having seen that the world didn't come to an end for other municipal employees, there might be a greater opening going forward because they'd say, 'Hey, you know, things worked out,'" Walker said at the annual Governmental Research Association policy conference.

Leaders of two police unions said their members wouldn't accept any such change, and they believe the governor knows that.

"He understands that there is an absolute difference between public safety and general employees in this regard," said Milwaukee Police Association president Mike Crivello.

Crivello said he cautioned officers who called him Tuesday not to jump to conclusions. Walker knows public safety workers face personal danger on the job, and that the union has allowed them to advocate effectively for weaponry and equipment that makes them safer, Crivello said.

"Certainly there is a concern when you hear something like the statement we heard," Crivello said. "(But) the reason this association has supported the governor in the past is because he truly had an understanding of public safety."

Public safety unions in Milwaukee are among the few unions that backed him in the 2010 election and a 2012 recall. Fire union officials couldn't be reached for comment.

The leader of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association union said Walker was speaking as a potential candidate in the 2016 presidential election, not as Wisconsin's governor.

"What he said would appeal to some extreme conservatives on a national basis," said Jim Palmer, WPPA director.

The Wisconsin League of Municipalities has pushed to apply Act 10 equally to all local government workers, and assistant director Curt Witynski said he hoped to hear more from the governor.

But Walker on Tuesday said he merely responded to a question about whether Act 10 might ever be expanded.

"This issue is not something Governor Walker is pursuing," said spokesman Tom Evenson. "If the issue were to arise in the legislature, the governor would take a look at it as he does with many other issues."

Republicans who control the Wisconsin Legislature said nothing is in the works.

"There has not been any caucus discussion on the topic of expansion," said Kit Beyer, spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos.

"Senate Republicans have not discussed it as a full caucus, and there are no plans to discuss it in the near future," said Dan Romportl, chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald.

Walker also riled critics by comparing his collective bargaining law to statements by liberal icon Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

"The position I pushed is not unlike the principle that Franklin Delano Roosevelt -- not exactly a conservative -- pushed as well when it came to public sector collective bargaining," Walker said. "He felt that there wasn't a need in the public sector to have collective bargaining because the government is the people. We are the people. And so what we've done is to be able to empower our great employees, to affirm them."

Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the state AFL-CIO, scoffed. "Gov. Walker is no Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Wisconsin knows it," Neuenfeldt said. "FDR brought us out of the Great Depression with strong investment in workers and jobs programs that worked. Scott Walker is drowning in a jobs deficit and to compare himself to FDR is laughably delusional."


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Source: (c)2013 The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.) Distributed by MCT Information Services