The controversial Wisconsin budget reform saves teachers’ jobs.
Aug 1, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 43 • By JOHN MCCORMACK
Emily Koczela had been anxiously waiting for months for Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s controversial budget repair bill to take effect. Koczela, the finance director for the Brown Deer school district, had been negotiating with the local union, trying to get it to accept concessions in order to make up for a $1 million budget shortfall. But the union wouldn’t budge.
“We laid off 27 [teachers] as a precautionary measure,” Koczela told me. “They were crying. Some of these people are my friends.”
On June 29 at 12:01 a.m., Koczela could finally breathe a sigh of relief. The budget repair bill—delayed for months by protests, runaway state senators, and a legal challenge that made its way to the state’s supreme court—was law. The 27 teachers on the chopping block were spared.
With “collective bargaining rights” limited to wages, Koczela was able to change the teachers’ benefits package to fill the budget gap. Requiring teachers to contribute 5.8 percent of their salary toward pensions saved $600,000. Changes to their health care plan—such as a $10 office visit co-pay (up from nothing)—saved $200,000. Upping the workload from five classes, a study hall, and two prep periods to six classes and two prep periods saved another $200,000. The budget was balanced.
“Everything we changed didn’t touch the children,” Koczela said. Under a collective bargaining agreement, she continued, “We could never have negotiated that—never ever.” Koczela, a graduate of Smith College and Duke University Law School, is no Republican flack. She says she’s a “classic Wisconsin independent. I vote both parties. I voted for Senator [Russ] Feingold but I voted for [Republican state] Senator Alberta Darling too.”
In Brown Deer and school districts across the state, Walker’s budget repair bill, known as Act 10, is working just as he promised. To make up for a $2.8 billion deficit without raising taxes, state aid to school districts (the largest budget line) was reduced by $830 million. Act 10, Walker said, would give districts “the tools” needed to make up for the lost money as fairly as possible.
But union leaders argued that the fight over the budget repair bill had nothing to do with balancing budgets. It was all about stripping public employees of their “collective bargaining rights.”
“We have said all along that this isn’t about pay and benefits,” Mary Bell, president of the state’s teachers’ union, said in February. “We are prepared to implement the financial concessions proposed to help our state in these tough times. But . . . we will not be denied our right to collectively bargain.”
Acceding, at least rhetorically, to higher benefit contributions—5.8 percent of salary for pension (up from nothing) and 12.6 percent of health care premiums—looked like a smart tactic. It made teachers seem reasonable and focused the fight on collective bargaining “rights.”
What few people may have understood, though, is that these are “rights” that most people, including federal employees, don’t have. But Americans don’t like taking away anybody’s rights. The polls in Wisconsin showed voters overwhelmingly opposed to “weakening” or “stripping” or “eliminating” collective bargaining rights. President Obama called the bill an “assault on unions.” Democratic state senator Lena Taylor compared Scott Walker to Hitler.
But as the abstract debate over collective bargaining collides with reality, it is becoming clear just how big a lie the Big Labor line was. Now that the law is in effect, where are the horror stories of massive layoffs and schools shutting down? They don’t exist—except in a couple of districts where collective bargaining agreements, inked before the budget repair bill was introduced, remain in effect.
In Milwaukee, nine schools are shutting and 354 teachers have been fired due to a drop in state funding and the end of federal stimulus funding. But if teachers there agreed to the 5.8 percent pension contribution, the school district says it would rehire 200 of those teachers. (Other changes could offset the rest of the layoffs.)
Despite the promise from Mary Bell that all teachers would contribute something toward their pensions, Milwaukee teachers’ union president Bob Peterson won’t agree to the change. In doing so he’s made it clear that “collective bargaining rights” is code for “union veto power.”
“You have a choice: layoffs or pension contributions. Do you see that choice?” a local Fox News reporter asked Peterson. “Why did you make a choice of layoffs?”
“I didn’t lay off anybody,” Peterson replied. He thinks Milwaukee teachers have conceded enough and blames Walker’s budget cuts for the layoffs. But a year ago—before Walker was elected and when Democrats controlled all branches of government—there were also layoffs.
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