MADISON, Wis. – School boards and local governments across Wisconsin are rushing to reach agreements with unions before a new law takes effect and erases their ability to collectively bargain over nearly all issues other than minimal salary increases.
The law doesn't go into effect until the day after Secretary of State Doug La Follette publishes it and it doesn't supersede contracts already in place, fueling unions' desire to reach new deals quickly. La Follette said Monday that he will delay publication until the latest day possible, March 25, to give local governments time to try to reach agreements.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker had asked La Follette to publish the law Monday, but the Democratic secretary of state said he didn't see any emergency that warranted doing so. La Follette opposed the bill and said he sat in his office watching parts of a weekend protest that brought as many as 100,000 people out in opposition to the law.
"This is the biggest change in Wisconsin labor management history in 50 years," La Follette said, describing his reasoning for holding off on its enactment.
The law ends collective bargaining for public workers over everything except salary increases no greater than inflation. It also forces state workers to make benefit concessions that amount to an 8 percent pay cut on average.
Walker also is proposing a nearly $1 billion cut in aid to schools in his two-year budget plan that would take effect in July. He argued that for that reason, districts need to get more money from their employees to help mitigate the loss in aid. Walker also wants to limit the ability of schools and local governments to pay for the cuts through local property tax increases.
The Wisconsin Association of School Boards is telling districts to be cautious about approving contracts that will make it more difficult for them to handle Walker's proposed cuts. Since Walker unveiled the bill on Feb. 11, between 50 and 100 of the state's 424 districts have approved deals with unions, said Bob Butler, an attorney with the association.
The vast majority of them included benefit concessions consistent with what Walker proposed under the new collective bargaining law, Butler said.
The Madison school board met in a marathon 18-hour session Friday night to reach an agreement with the local teachers union to approve a new contract that runs through mid-2013.
That agreement freezes wages and requires the same pension contribution as state workers will be required to pay starting later this month under the new law. It also allows the district to require health insurance premium contributions up to 5 percent in the first year of the deal and up to 10 percent in the second year.
The Racine school district voted to approve a new contract with its teachers union on Wednesday evening, as Walker's collective bargaining proposal was being approved by the state Senate. Several local governments, including the city of Janesville and La Crosse County, also have pushed through contracts in the past month ahead of the new law.
A handful of counties have reached deals with local unions statewide, said John Rhineman, legislative director of the Wisconsin Counties Association.
Rhineman said county boards want to reach deals in advance of the law taking effect because they want to work together with their employees who, in some cases, are seeking contracts more generous than what would be required under the new law.
"Our people do care about their employees," Rhineman said. "Some of them feel the bill has gone further than they would choose to go."
Schools and local governments would be foolish to rush through deals that don't account for concessions at the same level or greater than what is called for under the law, said Republican Rep. Robin Vos, co-chairman of the Legislature's budget committee.
If they don't get the concessions, then they can't complain about the difficulty of dealing with cuts, Vos said.
"Ultimately they're the ones who are going to have to deal with the ramifications," he said. "I can't imagine they're going to be able to talk out of both sides of their mouth."
If districts lock in deals with unions that don't have concessions to help make up for the aid cuts, that could force them into making "mass layoffs," said Walker's spokesman Cullen Werwie.
Eliminating collective bargaining, except over salary, puts both local teachers unions and the school districts in unchartered territory as they try to figure out how to work with one another without the previous structure, said Mary Bell, president of the statewide teachers' union that fought unsuccessfully to stop the bill.
"This bill creates chaos and that doesn't benefit anyone," Bell said. "There's a great deal of anxiety, as you might expect."
La Follette said he heard from many schools, cities and counties urging him to delay enactment of the law as long as possible. Waiting the full 10 days afforded under the law is his office's usual practice anyhow, La Follette said.
The law is also being challenged in court. A hearing on that lawsuit, brought by the Democratic Dane County executive, was scheduled for Wednesday. A request for an emergency injunction to block the law was rejected on Friday.
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