Patti Wenzel

Wauwatosa is ground zero in argument over union contracts

By - Apr 19th, 2011 04:00 am

Wauwatosa city council chambers. Photos by Patti Wenzel

While Scott Walker’s budget repair bill (Wisconsin Act 10) languishes in legal limbo, the battle over collective bargaining is now being waged in municipalities and school districts across the state.

The City of Wauwatosa has become ground zero for both supporters and opponents of the budget repair bill. Walker supporters want the full implementation of his policies; protesters see them as outright union busting.

Both sides are also using Wauwatosa as an example of “shared sacrifice.” Supporters of Walker’s plan agree with the idea to exempt police and fire fighters to maintain public safety, while opponents would be willing to accept the wage and benefit concessions portions of the governor’s plan if public employees weren’t pitted against each other.

The battle will continue tonight at 6:30 p.m., as the contracts with Wauwatosa’s public works, dispatchers and clerical workers are reconsidered at a special meeting of the city council. The meeting will be held in the Wauwatosa City Council Chambers in City Hall, at the corner of 76th Street and North Avenue.

Open meetings violation?

The special meeting was called after Alders Don Birschel, Linda Nikcevich, Dennis McBride, Bobby Pantuso and Jeff Roznowski signed a petition last week to call for a new vote on the contracts after approval was scuttled at the last minute in February.

Birschel and the other four Council members who signed the petition to put the contract ratification back on the agenda, are subject to a citizen’s open meetings complaint.  Wauwatosa resident Stan Zurwarski, who filed the complaint, claims Birschel said he had convinced 11 alderman to approve the contracts. (Eleven council votes would be needed to override a mayoral veto.) Birschel denies he has spoken with other aldermen about the contract; Zurwarski is opposed to the ratification of the contracts.

Close, but no cigar

On February 15, Alderman Peter Donegan moved to hold a hard-fought firefighters contract and to send it back to committee, pending action on the budget repair bill. In March, he and 12 other Tosa aldermen denied resolutions to approve contracts with the remaining city unions, under pressure from attendees of the meeting. At the same meeting, the council put off a decision to increase retirement health insurance premium contributions for non-union employees.

Tea Party activists and conservative radio listeners, tipped off by WISN 1130-AM talker Mark Belling, packed the next meeting, on March 15. The listeners demanded that the council hold the contract vote again and wait for ratification of Act 10, in order to find more savings to offset shared revenue, transportation and recycling aid cuts. Belling equated the proposed Wauwatosa contracts ratification to similar votes in Janesville and Sheboygan, where he said districts sped up approvals to beat the passage of the budget repair bill.

“Why do it now and have ourselves bound by a contract?” Wauwatosa resident Lee Meyer asked during a public comment portion of the meeting.

A subsequent PolitiFact review of district’s speeding up contract ratifications was found to be Barely True.

Wauwatosa officials said they weren’t trying to beat the clock by ratifying the contracts before the legislature passed and the governor signed Act 10. The contracts had been negotiated over several months, beginning in 2010, and debated at the committee level. All were forwarded to the common council following the January Committee on Employee Relations meeting.  Each contract contained pension and health care contributions that would have closely mirrored what is in the budget repair bill.

According to figures released by the Wauwatosa City Administrator James Archambo’s office regarding the pending contract, the clerical, dispatch and public works unions were willing to accept the 5.8 percent contribution to the state pension program and a 7-8 percent increase on their health insurance premium contribution, bringing that to 10 percent total. That would have accounted savings of approximately $1.1 million annually on both union and non-represented benefits. If the police and fire unions made the same 5.8 percent pension and increased health contributions, another $943,783 could be saved.

Wauwatosa is not part of the state’s health insurance program; they insure with another carrier at a lesser cost to the taxpayers than the state plan.

Chart supplied by the Wauwatosa City Administrator’s office.

Archambo said in an email to aldermen that the savings would be more than those realized under Gov. Walker’s proposal.

The proposed contracts also freeze wages for 2011. Under Walker’s budget repair, union employees could take a 1.6 percent increase in pay (based on the Consumer Price Index in the Milwaukee Urban Area). If that was allowed, the city would see wages increase $137,100 in 2011.

Archambo estimated that for every week the contracts go unapproved, it costs the city $20,000 in lost employee contributions toward their benefits.

Since the contract debate began, hundreds of Tosa residents (and non-Tosa residents) have e-mailed and called the mayor and aldermen. Many have asked the city council to follow the budget repair bill; a smaller number have asked the city to proceed with the negotiated contracts as presented.

A Tosa resident and union member told city council members in an email that he would not attend tonight’s meeting to demonstrate support for the ratification vote.

He agreed the contract was fair and that the union did its part when it ratified the new provisions last month. However, this public employee did not want to feed into the media and public’s bias that unions pressured the council to approve the contracts.  He told the council to pass or deny the contract on its merits and not allow the process to be turned into a media circus, pitting union members against taxpayers.

Public safety contracts

The firefighter’s contract is not part of the agenda tonight and the union will probably take the contract to arbitration. The Wauwatosa Peace Officer Association (police) has already asked to take its contract to a mediator.

One of the issues between the public safety and city unions is exclusion of officers from Act 10. Supervisors within the fire department are non-union and would be subject to the 5.8 percent pension and health contributions, while the officers they manage would not. This would create a disparity that could mean that managers would take home less pay than their employees.

That in turn creates concerns over future recruitment of qualified officers to move into management. Police Chief Barry Weber said officers wouldn’t want to leave the security of the union on pay issues and risk the ability to return to the union after taking a supervisory position.

Typically during mediation, the arbitrator will ask for comparable compensation and contribution numbers to use in making their decision. Settled contracts for the city’s other employee unions would be reviewed, with the possibility that the mediator would use those figures and apply them to both the police and fire union contracts. Having the city contracts ratified before the police union’s arbitration would likely favor the city in negotiations.

No matter the outcome at tonight’s meeting in Wauwatosa, some will be unhappy.

Attendance at this meeting is expected to be large, so Wauwatosa city officials will be handing out numbers for speakers. It is recommended people arrive early.

4 thoughts on “Wauwatosa is ground zero in argument over union contracts”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Walker more likely will be recalled with the bill still in the courts, if he isn’t impeached before that.

  2. Anonymous says:

    If my Governor (not easy saying that) fails in his political takeover, and I hope that he does, we’ll have wasted valuable time, money and capital so that Bellings radio ranters could have a tea party.

  3. Anonymous says:

    We will see… I think it is more likely that the senate will flip further Republican with the recalls coming up and Walker will serve as many terms as he runs for.

  4. Anonymous says:

    How can the senate flip to more republicans? If every recall fails–of those who actually have the required signatures–those seats stay republican. So far, no recalls against any of the Fabulous 14 have filed their signatures and time is running out. 4 Republicans have filed and I hear there is at least one more coming in the next few days. Yippee!!!

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