Bruce Murphy
Back in the News

County Backdrops

Unions have filed suit to protect the infamous backdrops, which made many county employees wealthy.

By - Apr 4th, 2013 11:27 am

Three unions have gone to court to protect the lucrative pension backdrop, whose passage caused a public outcry that led to the ouster of former Milwaukee County Executive F. Thomas Ament and seven county supervisors.  The unions have filed suit against the county and its Pension Board, arguing the backdrop is a vested property right that can’t be taken away.

As Urban Milwaukee has reported, more than 1,700 county employees have collected a backdrop benefit, with some 255 getting at least $250,000, 40 getting more than $500,000 and three getting more than $1 million. The complete list of backdrops can be found here.

The benefit grows bigger the longer employees work past the date they are eligible for retirement, so the benefit is growing for many current employees on a monthly basis. As a press release by Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele noted, the county has already paid out $200 million for backdrops and could pay another $100 million, but the reform championed by him could reduce the blow, by freezing the backdrop benefit for employees who are eligible to retire and eliminating it for future retirees who are eligible for the benefit.

“I’m disappointed the unions are fighting to save the outrageous backdrop that has cost Milwaukee County taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars and has put a strain on our ability to provide critical services,” Abele declared. “Instead of suing to stop this, I invite the unions to work with us to move Milwaukee County forward.”

The backdrop benefit was not created or proposed by unions, but rather was hatched by the Ament administration, as a way to reward veteran employees. Union leaders were amazed, as Wayne Krueger, who negotiated the contract for the union, once told me: “We felt all along, we don’t believe what they’re giving us,” he says. “This is more than we were asking for. We viewed it as a golden parachute for long-term employees. But we weren’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth.”

If you check our list of backdrops, you’ll find that Krueger retired with a lump sum benefit of $213,250.

Today, only the unions are publicly defending the benefit they never requested. As I’ve reported, they pressured county supervisors to oppose Abele’s plan, but the board eventually agreed to it.

The unions’ stance prompted this observation from Urban Milwaukee reader and union supporter Bill Sweeney:

“Are Unions being mentored by Mitt Romney? Why do they continue to self-destruct? ‘Something is happening here, and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Union Leaders?’ Isn’t there anyone in the Union movement that has a lick of common sense and decency? Big business paints union leaders as thugs who are just interested in their own material welfare, and covering up for slackers, deviants etc, and what is the response? “Well it may not be a pretty picture, but it’s OUR picture.”

At a time when working people, people who work at McDonalds and other fast food outlets, people who work in nursing homes and other care facilities, people who work hard for low pay and benefits, there needs to be unions that can represent them and fight the good fight. Union leaders who muscled through the endorsement of Falk for Governor in the recall election and now this, standing up for what? —  retaining entitlement to obscene payouts that never should have happened in the first place. It is pathetic.”

25 thoughts on “Back in the News: County Backdrops”

  1. David Ciepluch says:

    I am not a former county employee and have not received any benefit. I am a local taxpayer.

    From my understanding, the majority of high pay-out lump sums were to nonunion and management employees. These should be separated in your table. Lower paid employees took zero wage increases and lower pay over a few decades for a better pension and benefits. The lump sum idea came out of the 1990s as the market was hitting records highs until 2000-01 hit. The intent was to keep wages stagnate. Again it was management like Baldwin (management making $100K annually) and others that walked off with the big payouts, not the lower paid union staff that went with stagnating wages with a decent pension payout.

    You could provide a better service of showing two pots of payouts and the total volumes – management and union, and average payout to management and union and possibly salaries. Management payouts could have stopped years ago since there was no contract with them.

  2. dohnal(Wis. Conservtive Digest says:

    What a mess. there is no reason that public employees should get better salaries, better bennies, vacations, pensions, back drops, days off, holidays, vacations and on and on, then those of us that pay the bills.
    thanks to Bruce Murphy we got rid of some of the crooks that inhabit Milwaukee county. If only the story had gotten out sooner so that we could block it. Ament and company sole the family jewels, silver, even the toilet paper. Total control by one group, as it has been over the last 100 years, leads to this plus lousy schools a do nothing Mayor and a reputation in this state that is laughable.
    If I am the only one screaming about this it is not much help since the Left in this county loves to tell everyone how neat that they are.

  3. stacy moss says:

    This sounds really bad but look on the bright side. These upper middle class people will have more money to spend, which will stimulate the economy, and not enough money to ruin the economy.

  4. John G. says:

    Dohnal, I don’t believe that many on the left support the ridiculous numbers either.

  5. Dohnal(Wis. Conservtive Digest says:

    The people that designed the program were the handpicked politicos of the Left and they let them get away with murder for years. How do you think those big pensions, salaries etc. came about. The Left endorsed the elected officials and they voted themselves and their Union buddies the gravy and you gave them the spoon.
    At least Murphy exposed it.

  6. John G. says:

    Generalize much?

  7. dohnal(Wis. Conservtive Digest says:

    The Left never wants to take any responsibility for the messes they create. why do you think Milwaukee has gone now here the last ten years. Name me anything that Barrett and the school board has improved? They have to fence in their own employees to keep them there. Anything improved?

  8. Dave Reid says:

    @Dohnal Sometimes I wonder if you’ve been in Milwaukee in the past 10 years. Many areas have seen significant improvements

  9. Dohnal(Wis. Conservtive Digest says:

    I am all over the area for the last 50 years working on politics, publishing, pharmacy and Milwaukee has gone now here, schools are worse, MMSD is mess, MATC does not graduate kids with expertise in the things that they need, taxes keep going up and the kids graduate or not graduate who cannot read.
    Less than 50% of kids that enter 9th grade graduate and in 10th grade only 30% can read proficiently. Great job. Everyone is escaping the mess.
    The opposite is true in Washington, Ozaukee and Waukesha county.
    Want to see a growing economy??? Go to San Anotino, they build day and night. It is 40 years now and the expressway corridor grows dandelions.

  10. David Ciepluch says:

    At the end of WWII, the USA held 60% of the planets economy. Milwaukee was the machine shop of the world. Real wages and purchasing power peaked in 1968-69. Today the USA holds 18% of the world economy and going down and China at 18% and going up. Policy decisions were made during the 1980s to move the country to a service and knowledge based economy. China and India have larger middle classes than the USA. Locally and nationally we are in transition and that brings pain to many.

    We are a country in decline in many ways. It does not have to be this way but divisiveness and control of power seems to be the main political tactics playing out. The alternatives could be cooperative solution problem solving. Corporations, wealth and power appear to have only one interest – their short term profit, lowest wage and benefits possible, lick their boots and like it.

  11. dohnal(Wis. Conservtive Digest says:

    The more money you take from Productive people to give to non-productive people and government employees you reduce the productivity of both.

  12. David Ciepluch says:

    I assume that you mean unproductive takers like Wisconsin Conservative Digest that rely on corporate handouts so they can put out their lies and distortion under the disguise of journalism and comments. What has your organization added to the mix lately.

  13. Bill Sweeney says:

    What if Wayne Krueger had taken a different position at the time that this swindle was being enacted? What if he had sounded the alarm, which no one did at the time, to prevent it from happening? A conspiracy of silence. What if had said something like, “While I recognize that this might be a big bonus for some of our workers, it simply is not right for the citizens of Milwaukee County, in particular for all of the other hard working people in the county? This is robbing Peter to pay Paul and simply is not the right thing to do and will have disastrous results for our county, for our children, and for generations to come. ”

    On another note, I’d be curious to know whether Scott Walker has contacted Mr Krueger and the other beneficiaries of this debacle, and also the leaders of these unions that are trying to preserve their bribes, to on the one hand, send them thank you notes, and on the other hand, to see if they would like to contribute to his presidential campaign. Of course, Walker was the chief beneficiary of this deal. Is it going to far to say that the pension scandal is wedded to Act 10?

    I’d be curious to know what these union leaders are thinking. I hope Mr Murphy interviews them to get their side of the story. Do they think that collective bargaining is on its way to being consigned to the dustbin of history so they see no reason not to try to protect this perk, however unjustified or illegitimate? Do they understand what an insult this is to the citizenry of Milwaukee County, that their bonus payouts are taking money away from other services? What this does to the whole union movement?

    Think what the perception would be if the current union leaders came out in a joint news conference with Abele and members of the County board and said that they were NOT going to appeal this, that they recognize that the pension deal was indeed a scandal and not in the best interests of Milwaukee County, and they want to do their part toward improving the overall health of the community in which they live.

  14. Dohnal(Wis. Conservtive Digest says:

    Thanks to Bruce Murphy, he started the biggest backlash against government workers in 100 years. By exposing the corruption in the county, it has always been the place where all good leftists had a job, that led to the final action of the state changing the way the public employees got favorable treatment over that of the average taxpayer.
    Public employees should not get better pensions, salaries, vacations, dental , health, holidays, sick leave, than the average tax payer in this state.
    The backdrop scandal, exposed by Murph, started the ball bouncing.

  15. dohnal(Wis. Conservtive Digest says:

    David, I do feel bad taking all that money from George Soros. Actually most comes out of my pocket

  16. Tom J. says:

    Dohnal, maybe you should be asking yourself why you aren’t getting the pension, salary, vacation, dental, health, holidays, and sick leave that public workers are getting rather than trying to drag them down to the abysmal level the average taxpayer is stuck with?

  17. Dohnal(Wis. Conservtive Digest says:

    Most of us are not able to use a monopoly and/or elect our bosses to leverage such gold plated programs, especially when we aren’t worth it. Public employees have easy jobs. the only reason they got where they were was the Left wanted them to get elected so paid them off at contract time..

  18. David Ciepluch says:

    I am very appreciative that Bruce Murphy reported on this topic. MJS did not do their job at the time since they had cut staff on covering county issues. I am also disgusted with the payouts but I do not view it as a leftist or right wing issue. Dohnal wants to trash all of the County management and union in the same pot and rarely offers any substance other than bullet points put out by ALEC. Many of the people in government are hard workers just doing their jobs. High salaried management and politically appointed positions were the big benefactors in payouts. All I see on the spreadsheets are the highest paid positions listed. These are not union jobs shown but they are the ones currently being blasted.

    I am disgusted with Dohnal’s terms of productive and non-productive. Most people are working hard in job whether that is in government or the private sector. They are all jobs. There are some non productive workers in all sectors including the media.

    And I agree that there should be a negotiation at a solution. As for the management positions, the County Board and Executive could vote to stop the payments.

    Regarding ACT 10, this was a pay cut and union stripping across the board for public employees so Walker could turn around and shove billions to large corporations that have not created a job in the state in over a decade. It is a bait and switch and pits one against the other in a race to the bottom. It also killed spending across the board with small business in the state – that is why we rank near the bottom in the USA. Walker and Republicans have poisoned the well in the state and really have no answers.

  19. dohnal(Wis. Conservtive Digest says:

    David, I love hearing the Left whine. Fact is that I have been laying out alternatives for 50 years. Main was to bust up Milwaukee schools that have failed more than a million kids the last 40 years. All you have to do to make the Left cry is to tell the truth.
    While I mostly disagree with Bruce he started a revolution in this state.
    Yes, there are lots of non-productive people, look at the food stamp roles, the unemployment that the Left can’t fix and all of the welfare programs.
    There are plenty at top, look at all the Leftists in the banking, money industries ripping us all off, stating with Corzine. Madoff was a leftist too.
    every city and school district that the Leftista are running is a disaster. Detroit? New Orleans? LA.

  20. Tom J. says:

    Unable or unwilling to organize? The private sector has succeeded in destroying the power of unions as long as people like Dohnal are convinced to put the interests of their bosses ahead of their own and be happy with the scraps they get thrown.

    If corruption in unions means we should get rid of unions, perhaps the last 30+ years of corporate behavior is a sign that we should get rid of corporations.

  21. Dohnal(Wis. Conservtive Digest says:

    Private Unions, that is their choice, I was in several. Public monopolies, that hold taxpayers hostage, is another story. Public employees should not get better salaries, vacations, bennies, pensions, than those of us that pay their way. My taxes on the house have gone from $600 to $6,000 in my 40 years and I am retired.
    If private unions do not work with their bosses, to produce a good product, at a reasonable price, no one will buy it. We were stuck with public union monopolies.
    As for corporations, the big one, banks etc, all are democrats cause they make out better when the big spenders are in power.
    I ran a little pharmacy and got beaten up pretty bad by big companies, banks, so I am not in love with them. The Left can have the big guys, I want the little guys to grow and hire people.

  22. David Ciepluch says:

    Whether public or private company, it does not matter. We pay wages and benefits through buying services and products. We pay for military, police, fire, teachers, legislators, through taxes and fees for the services provided. People should have a right to organize and support wages, benefits and working conditions. In a small pharmacy, you were likely overcome by the large institutions and purchase power of Walgreens, CVC, Wal-Mart. We still purchase through the local small pharmacy for 40 years and shop at small businesses and restaurants where possible. People with good wages (private or public) help out small business by shopping there. A job is a job and irrelevant if it is public or private. The money is the same and drives the economy.

    People work and they expect fair and decent treatment and respect and payment in any position. They do not deserve the bashing from media and right wing talk radio that never worked in real jobs in their life.

    In regards to lefties running business, I would disagree. Most like the Koch brothers are likely apolitical and more interested in controlling regulations towards their wealth and benefit at the expense of everyone else. Guys like Murdoch that own Fox, control the news and messaging.

    As for the term lefty, I assume you mean liberal. I am a liberal and progressive. The term liberal means liberty and freedom and they are the people that founded this country. They are generally in opposition to monarchies, and the far right like forms of governance like fascism, oligarchy and plutocracy where the corporations control government and the outcomes of everything. During the American Revolution, the far right at that time would have been the Tories, and many left or were booted out of the country at the end of the war returning to England and Canada.

  23. dohnal(Wis. Conservtive Digest says:

    What an overblown bunch of hogwash. 80% of my property taxes goes to employees salaries and bennies. That should be about 50%. So, let’s cut salaries and bennies till they are equal to those of us that pay them.
    I do not know why the left wants to pay all that money into someone elses’ pockets whe
    n it can stay in ours.

  24. Tom J. says:

    What an overblown bunch of selfishness. It’s all about me, me, me, my money, my pocket. All workers (of which I know you are not) should demand salaries and “bennies” commensurate with living in a first-world country, not crow about dragging everyone to the level that corporate boards of directors and banks demand.

    I’d rather my taxes pay for food, clothing, transportation, and yes, vacations and healthcare for public workers than have them go to corporations profiting from destroying the environment or building machines of war.

  25. dohnal(Wis. Conservtive Digest says:

    What a choice, you can pay to anyone you want but I do not want to give my money to anyone of them.

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