MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin will no longer be obligated to bargain with its largest public employee unions after the weakened labor groups decided Thursday against seeking recertification votes in the state that was the forefront in this year's fight over union rights.
The unions representing about 50,000 workers opted not to file notice of an intention to hold the complicated and expensive votes required by Gov. Scott Walker's sweeping collective bargaining changes that were passed by lawmakers earlier this year. The unions now will be able to request informal talks with state agencies, but formal negotiations will go by the wayside.
Salary increases no greater than inflation was only item that even remained subject to bargaining under the state's new law, which took effect after months of divisive political wrangling and massive protests at the state Capitol. Unions lost the power to negotiate other issues like workplace safety standards, vacations and health care benefits — all of which had been subject to collective bargaining since Wisconsin became the first state to require it in 1959.
Labor leaders and lawmakers alike said they still hoped informal talks would continue.
"Prior to 1959 there wasn't official recognition and unions were very engaged in the workplace," said Bryan Kennedy, president of the 17,000-member American Federation of Teachers-Wisconsin. "The most important thing is unions are going to do what they did prior to 1959 and that is we're going to be the watchdogs for waste, fraud and abuse in these agencies."
Showing power through numbers — either in support or opposition to employer proposals — will be the model until unions win back the power to bargain a contract, Kennedy said.
"I'm confident we're going to continue to be a squeaky wheel," he said.
Experiences in Mississippi and other states without collective bargaining show public employees still can work with employers to get what they want, said Paul Secunda, a labor law professor and program coordinator for the Marquette Labor and Employment Law Program in Milwaukee. He also called the Wisconsin unions' decision not to pour resources into the recertification votes a "smart move."
"It doesn't have the bells and whistles of formal recognition. But what you do have is strength in numbers. It's only going to be the most callous state employer that ignores that," Secunda said. "The problem is, beyond consideration, there is no stick backed up by the law to force them to do anything."
Republican state Rep. Robin Vos, who employs 20 non-union workers at a food packaging business and was a staunch supporter of Walker's collective bargaining plan, said he expects there will be informal talks with state employees.
"It's common sense to say we're going to talk with employees as a state," Vos said.
Democratic state Sen. Chris Larson of Milwaukee, one of 14 senators who fled to Illinois this summer in a vain attempt to block passage of the bill, said holding even informal talks with state employees would lead to a feeling of disenfranchisement among workers and raise the risk of serious job actions like strikes.
Walker's spokesman, Cullen Werwie, had no comment Thursday on unions' decision not to seek recertification votes.
In addition to requiring the votes to maintain certification, the new law also bans automatic dues withdrawal from union members' pay checks, forcing them to voluntarily contribute.
Union leaders have refused to say how many members are voluntarily paying dues. The statewide teachers union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, announced in August it was laying off 42 people — 40 percent of its staff — as a cost-savings step.
Jeff Richter, a union member and analyst for the Public Service Commission, said he will continue to pay roughly $50 a month in dues and most of the 58 members of his unit also are voluntarily contributing.
"If your union is very active and you feel a part of it, there isn't a question in your mind why you would do this," he said.
Marty Beil, executive director of the 23,000-member Wisconsin State Employees Union representing largely blue-collar workers, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that none of the units in his group will seek recertification. He did not immediately return a message to The Associated Press on Thursday seeking comment.
Some small groups under the larger union umbrellas — including trade, local government and small school district unions — are opting to hold recertification votes.
But Kennedy said a recertification vote would have been cumbersome and cost up to $1 million for all AFT Teachers members. The new law requires a majority of all covered workers, not just those casting ballots, to approve in order for a union to remain certified.