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WI Government Workers Miffed About Police Contract Exemptions

WI Government Workers Miffed About Police Contract Exemptions

Associated Press

February 14, 2011

MADISON, Wis. (AP) – Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker wants to make sure just about everyone who works for the government can’t negotiate their working conditions — except for local police, firefighters and state troopers.

Walker has introduced a bill that would strip public employees across the board — from teachers to snowplow drivers — of their right to collectively bargain for sick leave, vacation, even the hours they work. But absolutely nothing would change for local police, fire departments and the State Patrol.

The bill smacks of political favoritism for public safety unions that supported Walker’s election bid last year and sets up new haves and have-nots in Wisconsin government, said Paul Secunda, a Marquette University professor who specializes in labor law.

“That’s called ‘thank you, I got your back,’” Secunda said. “There’s no surprise there. This is the worst type of favoritism there could be.”

Walker called those accusations “ridiculous” during a news conference to announce the bill on Friday.

The governor sent shockwaves across the state when he introduced the bill, which is designed to plug a $137 million hole in the state budget that ends June 30. The bill generates about $30 million in savings before then and $300 million over the next two-year budget by forcing state workers to contribute more to their pensions and health care, the governor said.

The legislation also includes a section that would allow public workers to opt out of joining unions and limit their collective bargaining to wages only, a huge departure from the extensive public sector collective bargaining that has gone on in Wisconsin for decades. The provision would mean the 175,000 or so people who work for the government at any level — teachers, computer technicians, spokespeople, accountants — would no longer be able to negotiate the length of shifts, vacations, sick days and discipline processes, among other things.

But Walker made sure the bill doesn’t extend to local police, firefighters or state troopers. They would go on negotiating their contracts as usual.

The Wisconsin Professional Police Association and the Wisconsin Professional Firefighters Association, the two largest rank-and-file unions for police and firefighters, endorsed Democrat Tom Barrett during the campaign.

Walker collected endorsements from the Milwaukee Police Association, the West Allis Professional Police Association, the Milwaukee Professional Firefighters and the Wisconsin Troopers Association during his campaign. And on Tuesday the governor announced he had hired Steven Fitzgerald, father of state Senate and Assembly majority leaders Scott and Jeff Fitzgerald — two figures Walker absolutely needs to advance his agenda through the Legislature — as State Patrol superintendent.

Translation: payback, according to Joe Wineke, former chairman of the state Democratic Party who served as former Gov. Jim Doyle’s chief union negotiator.

“No question in my mind. This isn’t rocket science,” Wineke said.

Walker said the state has always treated local police and firefighters differently than other public workers. He did not elaborate at his news conference, but his spokesman later pointed to sections of state law that lay out separate benefits for workers in protective occupations, including an earlier retirement age.

The exemption could create jealousy among government workers upset they must suffer while police, firefighters and state troopers go on as if nothing has changed, Marquette’s Secunda said. That might be what Walker wants, he said; private sector managers have traditionally tried to weaken unions’ clout by dividing workers into camps.

“You give a special privilege to some unions and don’t give it to others, it puts the privileged unions in a tough place,” Secunda said.

That schism may already be forming. Both the police and firefighters’ statewide unions as well as the Wisconsin Troopers’ Association issued statements praising Walker for recognizing their members’ jobs are important and unique.

Dave Seager, president of the Milwaukee Professional Firefighters Association, denied the exemption was a quid pro quo in any way, saying it simply shows Walker respects local public safety workers. Seager said it wasn’t his job to decide whether the exemption was fair.

“My concerns are for my membership,” he said, “to do the best that I can to protect their wages, hours and working conditions.”

Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz called the exemption “odd” in a blog post and warned it could drive a wedge between city workers.

“I’m all for allowing that for police officers and firefighters,” the mayor wrote, “but then why shouldn’t those rules apply to snowplow operators, parks workers, and other employees?”

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