It is the ultimate false choice: Governor Walker is suggesting that we must choose between unionized workers and streamlined government.
The fact is we can, and must, have both. One critical responsibility of elected leaders is to provide the highest quality public services as efficiently as possible. This requires skilled employees, a reliable structure, and a workplace culture designed to encourage trust and productivity.
The rights of Wisconsin workers to organize and bargain collectively has been around for 50 years. Public employees are your neighbors; they are librarians, bus drivers, nurses, teachers. Their unions came to the bargaining table in recent years, willing to help share the burden and spread the pain to help make city, state and county budgets work in tough economic times.
The way to improve public services and reduce costs is to trust public employees and give them the opportunity to do quality work.
There are a couple of things we need to do to stop Governor Walker’s proposal. First, we must get out the facts about wages and benefits for Wisconsin public employees. For example, over the years, Wisconsin public employees chose to take the funds available for increased compensation as retirement benefits and payment for health care. That is one reason the pay scale for most Wisconsin public employees is far below the national average.
Second, we need to examine Walker’s proposal where it may run afoul of federal law. Madison bus drivers are covered by a federal 13(C) Agreement. This is a requirement that applies to transit systems that receive federal aid. 13(C) “requires the continuation of collective bargaining rights, and protection of transit employees' wages, working conditions, pension benefits, seniority, vacation, sick and personal leave, travel passes, and other conditions of employment.” In other words it is likely that no matter what the legislature does in adopting Walker’s proposals, it will not apply to the Madison bus drivers or the drivers of any union-organized transit system in Wisconsin that receives federal funds.
We should be looking closely at all of the federal funding and regulatory requirements that may apply to the union employees in our cities, counties, and school districts.
Finally, total quality improvement must be adopted. In the city of Madison and in state government, this systems-approach to managing that focuses on the employees, not top down managers, has saved millions of dollars by creating more effective means of delivering public services. As I said in my public statement when Governor Walker’s proposal first came out, we will not, cannot and ought not fix our economic problems by demonizing working people or destroying their rights. Rather, we must continue to find ways to work together because that is the only way to meet the challenges we face.