WALKER THIS WAY: The unintended consequences of marginalizing public employees | WisCommunity

WALKER THIS WAY: The unintended consequences of marginalizing public employees

[img_assist|nid=65236|title=|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=179|height=179]Numerous political observers have documented how the Scott Walker method of governing (which is rather like the George W. Bush method) is a major example of haste making waste. Ideology and especially political partisanship trump sound public policy, almost every time. The Walker gang, with its concealed weapons of legislative destruction, tends to shoot first and aim later, much less ask any questions.

Here's just one more, mostly overlooked example of how Walkerism is wrecking efficient, effective government: As part of his surprise move to basically destroy collective bargaining for public employees, he's also trashed decades of carefully developed workplace protections.

Welcome to Walker's public-sector gulag. His moves have meant that Wisconsin citizens who happen to work for public institutions in this state not only have less compensation but also fewer workplace rights. Indeed, in some cases this change has meant that those workers now have fewer workplace protections than many private-sector workers, unionized or not.

Walker has said many times that public employees needn't fret, because while he has by fiat taken away collectively bargained assurances relating to workplace rights, workers are still protected by civil service rules.

It's true that civil service rules still exist, but it's not true that they are as effective as the workplace protections he took away.

Of course, Walker and the GOP in general think that it's just too expensive to treat workers fairly, and that unions had entirely too much power to run the show. Besides,  Repoublicans are authoritarians who brook no disagreement from the rank and file underclass. So never mind that these GOP tendencies are laughable, anti-social, and anti-democratic (with a small "d"). 

Walker got a compliant legislature to turn over more of its power to him. Now, not the legislature but the governor gets final say over any administrative rule that any state agency develops -- including workplace rules. Translation: Civil service rules now will be much more uncertain, political and capricious, and employees no longer can rely upon a nonpartisan, rational process to deal with workplace disputes over working conditions.

In fact, in the first state "compensation plan" developed by his administration under the new anti-union law, Walker not only cut state worker pay some more but also laid out pages and pages of unlegislated, unrefereed and unheard of new rules that give the state much more power to reward or discipline employees, while telling them how to behave in the workplace. 

This is, indeed, a far cry from what used to be an imperfect but far more equitable, professional system.

Over decades of hard bargaining, public employee unions got the state to agree to contractual grievance procedures that gave workers more assurance that if treated unfairly at work, they had a means to seek redress. Grievance procedures typically involved a multi-step process in which the employee would first file a complaint with his or her own agency. If the agency didn't change its mind, succeeding steps could take the complaint all the way up to an independent arbitrator. That's all gone, now. If you want to complain, the state basically serves as its own arbitrator, which is about as bad a conflict of interest as you'll find in any workplace anywhere.

It's fair to stipulate that the long-standing grievance procedures affirmed in now-defunct union contracts were hardly ideal. Both Democratic and Republican administrations often used every means allowed the state -- and some that were not allowed -- to drag out grievance hearings for months and years, forcing a long and unnecessarily expensive process. The result was that while some workers received a reasonably timely hearing, others eventually abandoned redress. Some even retired and in some cases died before their cases were resolved.

You know the language in the US Constitution guaranteeing a speedy trial in court? Well, it doesn't, evidently, pertain to labor grievances. Some State of Wisconsin grievances were resolved only after years and even a decade had passed. These cases sometimes involved issues that the state worried might become bad precedent, if the employee prevailed.

Other times the state's foot-dragging was all about money -- if an employee sought back pay, and his or her case went on for years, the amount of money in question could multiply rapidly. The state disliked paying out anything, irrespective of the merits of the case and even when its own adminstrative costs exceeded the sums at issue.

Because of Walker's move to cut state employee pay by around five percent on average (not to mention more recent cuts in the little noticed compensation plan), state and local governments in 2011 experienced a huge surge in workforce retirements, and many of those were early retirements. Other, younger workers quit to take better paying jobs in the private sector or in pubilc institutions in other states. Some of this rush out the door could be attributed to a sudden glut of aging baby boomers, but not all of it.

One state employee union grievance officer told me that his union has recently found it necessary to drop some long-pending grievances involving its members mostly because of retirements. There's nothing that prevents retirees from pursuing such cases where they were filed before Walker eliminated the grievance procedure itself -- those cases are grandfathered -- but, clearly, some retirees have had enough of innumerable delays and indignities. State government obstinacy wins.

The grievance officer also noted that since Walker took office and reshaped employee policy, the Office of State Employee Relations has by and large stopped talking to the union about pending cases. More delays. In theory, unions could and in some cases mright sue on behalf of their members, present and past. But there's the Walker obstructionism, again. His policies are clearly designed to destroy unions, and in the matter of dealing with pending grievances, the unions are being pushed in a direction of having to expend even more resources -- resources already constrained by Walker's union-busting law.

The bottom line is that, for now, Walker is winning this game, because he controls most of the cards. However, other players are starting to leave the table and Walker will soon be left to play with himself. At some point, governments across Wisconsin will face a situation where so many highly skilled but greatly demoralized staffers have left that the public policy will become horribly inefficient and ineffective. Walker is creating a public-sector brain drain and worker shortage that will not only lead to ineffectiveness, but add to costs.

Of course, guys like Walker clearly believe that it's a good thing to throw a wrench into the workings of government -- something that's been happening for years but now under Walker is going forth at an accelerated pace. However, Walker and his Republican enablers should remember to be careful what they wish for. 

Now that vital public services are on the wane and in some cases disappearing, and now that taxes haven't changed appreciably or are merely transferred to lower units of government, or in too many instances actually are going up, more voters are beginning to wonder what the heck they bought into. More of them will, in turn, begin to recognize that Walker's assault on public workers was just an indirect means of assaulting Wisconsin workers in general, for the benefit of narrow, special interests.


January 9, 2012 - 12:23pm