Why collective bargaining rights must go

State employee unions have agreed to pay a bit more toward their pension and health care costs, so why do we need to rein in collective bargaining?

First, we must remember that the 5.8% pension and 12.6% health care concessions the governor asked for only apply to state workers. Without the accompanying collective bargaining reforms, Milwaukee County has no guarantee of achieving similar savings from its unions. In fact, based on past experience, the county is unlikely to achieve any concessions whatsoever.

In 2009, faced with the possibility of a large year-end deficit, then-County Executive Scott Walker proposed a 35-hour workweek. The unions objected and filed a grievance. In lieu of the shortened workweek, the county then instituted furlough days. Once again, the unions objected and filed a lawsuit.

Both the 2010 and 2011 budgets adopted by the County Board included modifications requiring employees to pay more of their pension and health care costs. To their credit, the non-union employees took these concessions while the unions stonewalled negotiations and refused to partake in any sacrifice.

Now, when I hear unions claim that they are willing to accept concessions, it reminds me of that old Peanuts cartoon where Lucy persuades Charlie Brown to kick the football by promising that she won’t remove it at the last minute (despite doing so countless times before). As Charlie runs down the field, sure enough, Lucy grabs the ball and runs away just as he is about to kick it. Once again, Charlie Brown lands flat on his back, with Lucy laughing in the background.

If we allow ourselves to be fooled into believing that the unions, after years of doing otherwise, will voluntarily give up the concessions needed to balance our budget, we will fall flat on our backs as the unions run away with the ball.

Unions are not solely to blame for the predicament of unsustainable benefit costs. Elected officials and boards who blindly give in to every union demand – without considering the consequences on taxpayers – share the blame. This was most recently on display when the Milwaukee Area Technical College Board, with some members flying into town at the last minute, rushed to approve a union contract before Gov. Walker’s proposal would be approved.

Furthermore, we cannot fault unions for asking for the moon during negotiations. After all, they are paid by their members to get the best deal. But at what point do we draw the line between what unions want and what we can afford?

Do we continue to raise bus fares, cut routes and otherwise make it more difficult for our citizens to get to school, jobs and shops, all so that county employees can continue to have the best health plan money can buy and pay next to nothing for it? Do we continue to raise property taxes on seniors and others living on fixed incomes so that county employees can have a guaranteed pension plan and pay little or nothing toward it? Do we continue to privatize county jobs and throw dedicated public employees on the unemployment rolls because their union bosses refuse to make county jobs more affordable?

For decades, the collective bargaining process in Wisconsin – favoring unions – has forced taxpayers to shoulder the burden through tax increases and service cuts. Walker’s proposed collective bargaining reforms will level the playing field. They are desperately needed and must be passed.

Milwaukee County Supervisor Joe Sanfelippo of West Allis represents the 17th District.

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