Federal union leaders hope whatever got into Wisconsin voters isn’t so contagious that it infects labor practices in Washington.
Yet Tuesday’s victory by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker over a recall campaign sends a message federal labor organizations can’t ignore.
Although there are important differences between local and state public sector unions, including those in Wisconsin, and federal labor organizations, they operate in similar environments. Walker’s victory can make a warm day in June feel like a Wisconsin winter to labor leaders anywhere.
Walker, a Republican who slashed the collective bargaining power of state public sector unions, beat a strong labor effort to kick him out of office and replace him with the more union friendly mayor of Milwaukee, Democrat Tom Barrett.
“Anybody, anybody would have been better than Scott Walker,” said Gregory J. Junemann, president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, which represents workers in more than a dozen federal agencies. Junemann commutes weekly to Washington from Milwaukee, where his union member wife is a public school employee.
Like many political observers, Junemann can point to the tremendous funding advantage Walker had over Barrett, but the union leader isn’t satisfied with that as an excuse for the mayor’s defeat.
“The people of Wisconsin said that the attack by Scott Walker and his allies on public employes and their unions was acceptable,” Junemann said. “That’s what they said with their votes. This puts us in a very uphill battle for November.”
Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, has a different spin: “I do not believe the results of the Wisconsin election demonstrate strong support for anti-employee policies.” Instead, “the broader long-term message,” she said, is “working men and women, and their unions, will not stand idly by while reactionary forces attempt to roll back hard-won rights.”
They might not stand idly by, but they also might lose.
If labor unions and their allies, which is to say Democrats, don’t win in November, Capitol Hill and the White House will be a much less friendly place for Kelley and Junemann. Already, House Republicans have repeatedly pushed to limit federal employee compensation, weaken federal unions and cut the number of federal employees.
In April, Mitt Romney said that if he is elected president, “we will stop the unfairness of government workers getting better pay and benefits than the very taxpayers they serve.” His assumption about federal pay might not be correct, but it’s popular with lots of folks.
After Walker’s victory, Romney said it shows “taxpayers can fight back — and prevail -– against the runaway government costs imposed by labor bosses.”
In reality, labor negotiates; it doesn’t impose costs on government. And at the federal level, unions generally are not allowed to bargain over compensation, a significant difference from their state and local colleagues.
This spring, the Federal Workers Alliance circulated a flier listing 21 reasons federal employees should join unions. All the reasons were bills introduced by Republicans. The list, compiled by NTEU, was divided into four categories: “legislation targeting your pay,” “legislation targeting your pension,” “legislation targeting your job” and “legislation targeting other federal issues.”
If the flier had a category for “legislation targeting federal labor unions,” at least two bills would have been there. One would prevent the automatic deduction of union dues from federal paychecks. Employees, however, already can stop deductions if they wish. Another bill would restrict “official time,” which union leaders use to do union work on government time. The government allows official time as a trade-off for the requirement that unions serve all the employees in a bargaining unit, even those who are not union members and do not pay union dues.
With the long list of bills aimed at federal workers, Carl Goldman, executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Council 26, which represents federal workers, said he can’t imagine Walker’s victory “embolding [congressional Republicans] any more than they already are.”
But it does.
“Governor Walker’s overwhelming victory does send a message,” said Rep. Dennis A. Ross (R-Fla.), chairman of the House federal workforce subcommittee. “The message is not that people are looking to punish public employees or use them as a scapegoat. The message is that taxpayers want to see public employees live under the same rules as everyone else. That means pay for performance, contributing to their own retirement and being accountable to their boss, who is not their union president, but the taxpayer.”
Ross said the election results should “awaken union leadership to the realization that they should work with us to create a new paradigm for public workers and stop resisting the inevitable changes.”
Time will tell.