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Wisconsin, Ohio Target Government Union Contracts

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie
Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey. Photographer: Ramin Talaie/Bloomberg

The Wisconsin Legislature may pass a bill as early as tomorrow restricting collective bargaining for public employees and requiring them to pay more health-care and pension costs. The plan prompted protests and even a sleep-in under the Capitol rotunda.

Similar efforts are under way by Republican governors including Chris Christie in New Jersey and John Kasich in Ohio as part of efforts to deal with deficits. States face gaps that may reach $125 billion next year, according to the Center on Budget & Policy Priorities.

“Wisconsin is broke, just like about every state is broke,” Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker said today in a telephone interview. “It’s about time people have the courage to stand up, point that out, and do something about it.”

Walker said he has the legislative support to enact the bill and that “it passes, no doubt about it.”

Unions staged demonstrations at the Wisconsin and Ohio statehouses this week. Schools in the Wisconsin capital of Madison canceled classes today because 40 percent of the 2,600 union members called in sick, according to the Associated Press.

University of Wisconsin-Madison students and teaching assistants lay down in sleeping bags in the Capitol during a hearing that lasted until 3 a.m. today, and there was a second straight day of demonstrations -- including chants of “Recall Walker now” outside the governor’s office, the news service reported.

‘Fundamental Underpinning’

The right to negotiate through a union is “a fundamental underpinning of our middle class,” Phil Neuenfeldt, Wisconsin State AFL-CIO president, said in a statement. “Instead of balancing the budget on the backs of hard-working Wisconsinites, we need to come up with a balanced approach that looks at shared sacrifice from everyone.”

The bill would allow public workers except police and firefighters to bargain only for wages. It would require them to pay 5.8 percent of their pension costs -- they pay nothing now - - and 12 percent of health-care premiums, up from 6 percent, Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald said in a telephone interview.

Walker, a Republican elected last year, proposed the measure in response to a projected deficit of $137 million in the current fiscal year and $3.6 billion in the next biennium. The bill would allow the state to save $30 million in the current fiscal year and $300 million in the next biennium.

The alternative is firing up to 6,000 state employees, the governor said.

Fateful Weekend

Fitzgerald said he expects the bill to reach Walker’s desk by the weekend. Republicans control the Assembly by a margin of 60 to 38 with one independent, and Republicans have a five-seat advantage in the Senate.

The bill wouldn’t affect employees until their contracts expire, said Peter G. Davis, general counsel of the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission.

Public workers in Wisconsin and Ohio are not required to join unions though they may be required to pay “fair share” dues if that provision is part of the contract where they work, said Davis and Sally Meckling, spokeswoman for the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association, the largest state union.

Meanwhile, in Columbus

In Ohio, lawmakers are holding hearings on a bill to prohibit collective bargaining for all state workers and restrict it for other public employees, while abolishing salary schedules in favor of merit pay, according to an analysis by the Ohio Legislative Services Commission.

The state’s collective-bargaining law was passed in 1983 under Democratic leadership and the goal of the current effort is to “restore some balance between management and labor,” Kasich told reporters yesterday.

Firefighters, police officers, teachers and other public employees crowded into the Ohio Statehouse yesterday to oppose the bill as a Senate committee heard testimony from proponents.

Witnesses with opposing views are scheduled tomorrow. The Ohio Liberty Council, a coalition of about 60 Tea Party groups, said in a statement that it plans to rally at the statehouse against what it called “one of Ohio’s most important threats -- the prosperity-killing public-employee unions and collective bargaining.”

In New Jersey, Christie has targeted the teachers’ union with proposals including ending tenure, linking pay to performance and making it easier to fire the worst educators. He also wants no pay raises for state workers this year while requiring them to pay more for health-care and pension benefits.

Editors: Stephen Merelman, Ted Bunker.

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