California public sector employee organizations need to closely follow how things are unfolding in the State of Wisconsin. Recently, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker proposed the passage of a plan to have Wisconsin public sector employees pay a greater share of their pension costs and healthcare coverage. The governor’s proposal comes in the face of a projected 3.6 billion dollar budget shortfall and is designed to avoid widespread layoffs. The governor also proposed the elimination of collective bargaining rights for Wisconsin public sector employees.
The governor’s proposal resulted in a massive public employee demonstration at the Wisconsin capital. Public schools were closed on Wednesday because so many teachers called in sick to attend the protest. The move by the Wisconsin governor and legislature is a significant shift for Wisconsin and should alarm public employee unions in all other states because Wisconsin, which first passed comprehensive collective bargaining laws in 1959 is considered the birthplace of public sector employee unions representing non-federal public employees.
The Wisconsin governor’s proposal represents a new approach to dealing with government budget problems. For years Wisconsin and most other local and other state governments, especially California, have dealt with budget shortfalls by trimming expenses where possible in a series of short term fixes such as furloughs, compensation deferrals, and the like. Moreover, governments have deferred budget problems to the next fiscal year. The new era appears to be one of direct action without apologies. For the first time, maybe in decades, governors such as Scott Walker appear to have public support. Walker said that while he appreciated the concerns of the public employees, he said taxpayers, “need to be heard as well”. Walker commented that the private sector has been devastated by the recession and that, by comparison, the seven percent (7%) wage reduction to Wisconsin public employees is a minor form of pain compared to what most private sector employees have been forced to endure.
Leaders of California public sector employee unions should take note. The longstanding assumption, especially in public safety, that the public will support them is misplaced and in many cases flat out wrong. California’s public sector employee organizations need to disregard the same old stale arguments they have been making for years for this simple reason: the private sector taxpaying public no longer cares. California’s public sector employee organizations need to be progressive, forward thinking, and creative. They should focus on telling their story as an indispensable service to California. The strategy of public employee unions in California over the next year will be critical as to whether California faces a similar effort to eliminate collective bargaining rights for public sector employees, which will likely come in the form of a ballot initiative.