Like a bad vibe spreading across the land, the decision to severely slash public-employee collective-bargaining rights in Wisconsin is sending a jolt through federal unions in Washington.
“Are we next?” Cliff Guffey, president of the American Postal Workers Union, asked in a video posted on his organization’s Web site. He warned that the action of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) and Republicans in the state’s legislature is a threat to all public employees, including those at the federal level.
He’s not alone in that assessment.
Donald F. Kettl, dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, said by e-mail that “state-level battles are lining up as an express heading straight to DC. We’re going to be seeing these issues framed for the feds in the not-too-distant future. In a nutshell: the domestic discretionary cuts won’t get us far, almost no one wants to tackle entitlements (where the real cash is), so federal employees represent a huge target with the (arguable) potential for big savings.
“Strap yourself in,” he added. “This is going to be a very wild ride.”
No one is attempting a union-busting move against federal labor organizations — yet. But given the dramatic change in the nation’s political climate that came with the Republican takeover of the House, it would be no surprise to labor leaders if efforts akin to the new Wisconsin law emerged in Congress.
“It’s certainly a bad omen,” John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, told a meeting of Washington Post journalists Monday. “It’s pretty scary. I do think that we’re going to be seeing a similar attack on the federal side.”
One significant difference between most federal employees and the public employees in Wisconsin is that state workers can negotiate over pay. Under the legislation signed by the governor, that right will be significantly curtailed. Bargaining over other conditions of employment, including fringe benefits and hours, will be eliminated.
Rep. Dennis A. Ross (R-Fla.), chairman of the House federal workforce subcommittee, is no fan of broad bargaining rights for public employees, and he is in a position to do something about it on the federal level. “The ability of State public employee unions to bargain for wages and benefits in some instances, has bred corruption, waste, and . . . looming pension disasters, not to mention it is simply antithetical to good government,” he said in an e-mail to the Federal Diary.
Asked whether that view extends to federal workers who do bargain over wages — such as those in the Postal Service, air traffic controllers and some financial agency staffers — Ross’s spokesman indicated that it does.
Ross “believes that collectively bargaining for wages and benefits by public sector unions is not in the best interest of the taxpayer and is antithetical to good government,” responded Fredrick Piccolo Jr., the congressman’s chief of staff. “Public sector workers deserve safe and reasonable working conditions but should not be able to bargain with the public purse. Unlike the private sector, government can’t go out of business if a bad deal is brokered. Instead, they just print more money and tax.”
Although Ross and Wisconsin give federal employees good reason to be nervous, they should find encouragement in the public’s response to the state law. The protests in Madison, often fueled by the broader union movement, demonstrated a kind of energy and organization that the left seemed to have misplaced.
And recent polling data indicate strong support for public workers:
lSixty-four percent said public employees should have the right to collectively bargain for wages, according to a Bloomberg poll.
lSeventy-seven percent said public employees should have the same collective-bargaining rights as private employee unions, according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal survey.
lFewer than half of those questioned in separate New York Times/CBS and Quinnipiac University polls favored taking away or limiting collective-bargaining rights to reduce state budget deficits.
Ross dismissed the polling data, saying the results depended on how the questions were asked. He said, “There is overwhelming public support for streamlining work, reducing the workforce and achieving pay parity, as well as limiting the ability of public sector unions to hold the taxpayers and their wallets hostage.”
Hoping to capitalize on the good feelings for public employees, a coalition of federal unions is planning a public relations campaign, including radio spots, “to counter or change the frame of reference to all of the good things” federal employees do, said William R. Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees.
Federal workers may need that campaign and whatever other help they can get to divert efforts to go after their collective-bargaining rights.
Said Kettl: “I think this express train is coming to town.”
Polling manager Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this column.