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Recall aftermath: Public unions face uncertain future

Public union leaders are digging in for the long haul after Gov. Scott Walker's decisive victory in last week's recall attempt made it clear collective bargaining rights won't be restored anytime soon.

But the unions are hobbled by reduced union dues, which led to cuts in organizing staff, and money could grow tighter still if the recall results discourage more workers from paying dues, several labor leaders said.

"Will they say, 'That didn't work out, I give up'? We don't know," said Dan Burkhalter, executive director of the state's largest teachers union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council.

Under the new law, teachers and other government workers lose bargaining rights, and payroll deduction of dues stops, as soon as current contracts expire. That means workers must sign up individually to again be dues-paying members.

Meanwhile, take-home pay is being reduced to cover pension costs and health care expenses, making it difficult for some to pay dues, said WEAC president, Mary Bell.

Of the 30,000 WEAC members who lost union status under the 2011 state law when their contracts expired, 21,000 have returned as voluntary dues-paying members, Burkhalter said.

But it's not clear how many of the 60,000 members whose contracts will expire over the next year or so will choose to sign up and keep paying dues.

"Were people willing to sign up voluntarily (for union membership) at that 70 percent rate to go out and recall the governor, and the question is, will they still feel the same way now?" Burkhalter said.

Because Act 10 banned public sector payroll deductions of dues, "fair share" dues paid by non-members who receive union services, and almost all collective bargaining, Wisconsin unions face bigger challenges than those in other states that have seen smaller cutbacks in union powers, Burkhalter said.

"It's so new, we don't know what it means," Burkhalter said.

Membership has fallen sharply — from 63,577 to 35,942 — for the state's other major public sector union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, in the year since the law passed, the Associated Press reported, quoting internal union documents. AFSCME leaders have disputed the figures.

However, the unions have conceded the fall-off in union dues has caused staffing cuts of 30 percent to 40 percent.

The teachers union reduced its 100-person staff by 42. AFSCME Council 40, representing local government workers outside Milwaukee County, reduced its 40-member staff by 13. And Council 24, the Wisconsin State Employees Union, cut about six of its 20 staff positions.

A slow rebuilding

Walker's win means Republicans in other states will be emboldened to curtail legal union rights, but labor's future in Wisconsin is far from dim, said Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor research at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

Despite the election setback, exit polls indicated 51 percent of voters favor public sector unions, and state union members appear to have been galvanized by the fight, Bronfenbrenner said.

Because school and local government unions already rely on members to perform many core functions, the public unions won't be stopped dead by dues reductions, Bronfenbrenner said.

But leaders are trying to figure out how to regroup after the election loss.

"This was a hard blow, absolutely," said Rick Badger, executive director of AFSCME Council 40. "We're not looking at gains in the next few months, but in the next few years."

Badger, Bell and other said they will continue to turn to public forums and politics to push for workers' interests.

Bell said educators will need to work harder to build bridges with the public, both through public education and by listening.

Smoother over conflict

Nelson Lichtenstein, a leading labor historian who teaches at the University of California-Berkley, said the loss of public union rights in Wisconsin is significant, but it's not the end of the labor movement here.

Openings for changes in the law will come after the recession lifts, taking pressure off government budgets and cooling down anti-union sentiment felt by those who are out of work or who lost ground in non-union, private sector jobs, Lichtenstein said.

Until then, Wisconsin unions will operate in the same way unions did before laws were passed requiring collective bargaining to resolve disputes.

"The whole reason we had collective bargaining laws is because there was this huge wave of strikes in the '60s and '70s and it was hugely disruptive," Lichtenstein said. "I'm not saying you'll see a large number of strikes in Wisconsin right away, but over time you'll end up with a kind of low-level of chaos. The collective bargaining laws are designed to routinize conflict, to make it routine and peaceful."