By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON – “Sour grapes.”
That’s how Jim Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association sums up a proposal that would bring cops and firefighters under the provisions of Wisconsin collective bargaining reforms – the same requirements by which their public sector brethren are bound.
Sen. Tim Carpenter, D-Milwaukee, this week announced he is drafting “Act 10 Equity” legislation which would “remove the undue preferential treatment police and firefighter unions have received” under the law that governs collective bargaining.
Carpenter, no fan of the law that ended collective bargaining for most public employees in the state, with the exception of emergency services employees, apparently sees his field-leveling proposal as the best Wisconsin can do under the circumstances.
“Until such time that all public workers’ rights are protected, the creation of a preferential class among public workers unions – distinguished only by their support of Republican political campaigns – violates any notion of fairness and equal treatment under the law,” Carpenter said in a statement.
“Given the cards Governor (Scott) Walker has dealt this state, the only fair alternative is to require the equal treatment of all public employee unions. It’s time for Act 10 to be equally applied to police and fire unions,” Carpenter added.
The senator did not return Wisconsin Reporter’s calls seeking comment.
Palmer said he finds it interesting that Carpenter now appears to be promoting the “very race-to-the-bottom mentality he has spent the last two years fighting against.”
Carpenter was one of 14 Democratic senators – the “Fab 14” to their fans, derelict in their duty to critics – who fled Madison on Feb. 17, 2011, holing up at a hotel in Rockford, Ill., to forestall a vote on the controversial reform bill.
It didn’t work.
The Republican majority passed the bill in their absence, and Walker, who pushed the collective bargaining changes, quickly signed it into law.
Palmer and the police association stood with Act 10 opponents at the time, calling for a public boycott of businesses that didn’t support collective bargaining for public employees. The police union chief joined several organized labor leaders in threatening the former Marshall & Isley Corp. (M&I Bank), among other businesses through a boycott campaign.
“In the event that you cannot support this effort to save collective bargaining, please be advised that the undersigned will publicly and formally boycott the goods and services provided by your company,” Palmer and the others wrote to Tom Ellis, M&I president at the time. “However, if you join us, we will do everything in our power to publicly celebrate your partnership in the fight to preserve the right of public employees to be heard at the bargaining table.”
Palmer said he believes Carpenter’s proposal is political retaliation for police and firefighter support of a Republican measure to lift local government mandates that require public employees to reside within the communities they serve. The Legislature’s powerful Joint Finance Committee recently approved the item, to be included in Walker’s 2013-15 budget proposal, giving police and firefighters what they have long sought: the freedom to move.
Milwaukee leaders, Carpenter among them, have complained that the measure robs local control and would be economically detrimental to the city.
“This is an unfortunate case of sour grapes,” Palmer told Wisconsin Reporter. “I think Sen. Carpenter is probably frustrated the WPPA (and firefighters) support not only the Republican residency provisions but other provisions in Gov. Walker’s budget. I think that frustration, unfortunately, has gotten the better of him.”
Carpenter charges the “genesis of this unequal treatment under Act 10 was never in question.”
“Governor Walker gave preferential treatment to police and fire unions as a quid pro quo for Milwaukee police and fire unions’ early and unwavering campaign support for Governor Walker and many legislative Republicans,” Carpenter said in his statement.
Palmer said the numbers don’t add up to a “quid pro quo.” While Milwaukee’s police and firefighter unions endorsed Walker for governor, the vast majority of emergency services unions supported Walker’s opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett – including the WPPA, which represents some 11,000 active and retired officers from more than 375 locals statewide.
Still, the distinct classes in Act 10 are hard to ignore. In fact, those differences are front and center in legal challenges to the law.
Act 10, for the majority of public employees in Wisconsin, limits wage negotiations to the rate of inflation and eliminates any bargaining on fringe benefits. The law requires most public employees contribute to their pensions – 6.65 percent of their wages – and more to their health insurance.
Police and firefighters aren’t bound by those requirements, and Carpenter says the reforms have created a “difficult and uncomfortable work environment for public employees where in the same office were ‘haves,’ and others were ‘have nots.’”
Dawn Foeller, finance director for the city of Green Bay, said she sees the animosity and resentment created in the system.
More so, the disparity is costing taxpayers.
In Green Bay, the city and its police union have moved to the final stage of contract arbitration. The city is seeking the 6.65 percent employee pension contribution and an increase in health insurance contributions, from 7.5 percent to the 12.5 percent the city’s general employees pay. Foeller said the firefighters union already has signed on to the pension contribution.
Right now, Green Bay taxpayers are paying nearly $900,000 more into police pensions then they would have had the union been included under the provisions of Act 10.
Even at 6.65 percent, however, the percentage of protective service pension benefit is much higher than what general public employees receive. Total contributions to police pension in Green Bay are 16.4 percent, and 19 percent for firefighters, with the city making up the difference beyond the 6.65 percent. General employees total pension contributions amount to 13.2 percent of wages, evenly split between the employee and the taxpayer.
“Governor Walker argued that eliminating collective bargaining was one of the tools that local governments needed to manage budgets,” Carpenter said in his statement. “This argument soon collapsed under the weight of the fact that the largest share of most local government budgetary costs is related to police and fire wages, health care and pensions.
“Act 10’s preferential treatment of police and fire unions makes no budgetary sense.”
Palmer acknowledges that Act 10 is an uneven playing field, but the jobs involved are different. Police and firefighters, he said, put their lives on the line. There’s more risk and more time demands in the 24-7 protective services.
And the union chief says police are contributing more to their benefits, a recognition of the changing fiscal environment.
In Madison, for instance, police are chipping into their state pension funds — 3 percent in 2012 and 5 percent in 2013, according to the city. Next year, police will pay in at the same level as general, non-protective services employees.
At present, the difference between 5 percent and the 6.65 percent other employees pay costs Madison taxpayers about $950,000, according to Deb Simon, with the city’s finance department.
Alyssa Moyer, communications director for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said the senator has yet to see the bill that Carpenter proposes and until then does not have a comment.
A spokesman for Walker did not return Wisconsin Reporter’s request for comment.
Contact Kittle at [email protected]