Originally exempt From state cuts, Wisconsin police and firefighters now face changes, too

February 8, 2012

Niala Boodhoo

This is the second in a two-part series about what’s changed for public workers in Wisconsin, one year after labor protests gripped the state (part one is here).

The Capitol building in Madison is amazing – anyone can just walk in. And in Madison, people often do just visit, like Brian Austin, who often brings his children here.

Listen to  Niala Boodhoo discuss Wisconsin labor politics on Eight Forty-Eight.

Austin is a detective with the City of Madison’s police department. He was also one of the tens of thousands who packed this building in protest when Gov. Walker proposed limiting union rights for public workers. The law – Act 10 – passed anyway. So Austin says when he goes into the building now, he can’t help think of it as a “completely different” building – and he means that in both a positive and a negative way.

His ambivalence is because he says Walker has brought the Wisconsin workers together – even though they’re suffering now.

The Wisconsin state worker’s union estimates that some 22,000 public employees are taking home 13 percent less pay since the law has taken effect. As it was written, public safety workers like police officers were supposed to be exempt.

But now, police and firefighters are finding, they, too, are facing increased pension and health care costs.

“We knew there was going to be a slippery slope,” says Jim Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, the state’s largest police union.

“Economic conditions that are impacting Wisconsin aren’t going to go away,” Palmer says. “And we knew that if municipalities in this state continue to see a shortfall, and if police and firefighters are the only ones with collective bargaining rights, we would be next.”

Last fall, the city of Madison saved more than $2 million when the mayor asked police and fire unions to renegotiate their contracts. Now, workers are contributing three percent more to their pensions and are paying for their own uniforms. In return, no one was laid off or furloughed.

Palmer – the union rep – says that’s how collective bargaining is supposed to work. But it’s hasn’t been so agreeable elsewhere.

In a decision that’s yet to be announced, the Wisconsin police union and Eau Claire County have gone before the state labor board over police contracts there. Eau Claire’s corporate counsel, Keith Zehms, says the county is simply following the law.

“Our position is based on the change that the state legislature made in the law last summer,” Zehms says.

Zehms isn’t talking about Act 10. He’s referring to the state budget. It contained language allowing municipalities leeway in negotiating health care contracts for all of its workers – including public safety.

And that’s why some local governments are saying police and firefighters have to pay more on health care costs – regardless of what the union says. So the unions are fighting back. As of now, there are at least three court cases going on in Eau Claire, but also Milwaukee and Green Bay.

At issue is whether the unions have the right to bargain over health care costs – how much workers pay for deductibles and premiums.

Back at the capitol building in Madison, Detective Austin walks outside to where about one hundred people were singing. It’s a noonday protest that has occurred every day since last Feb. 14, when the protests really began. Austin isn’t the only public safety worker in the crowd.

Madison firefighter Cory Roberts says he’s there because even though his union has reached an agreement with his city, he’s worried about his colleagues elsewhere.

“People say you have amazing benefits,” Roberts says. “but, you know, those were negotiated in lieu of wages at some point.”

Roberts is holding a sign that says “Recall Scott Walker.” Last month, Wisconsin Democrats turned in one million signatures to recall Walker. His Republican supporters have until the end of this month to challenge the signatures.

Austin and Roberts both said something you hear echoed more than a few times by public safety workers in Wisconsin. Before last year, they stayed out of politics. But now, they’re actively engaged – trying to get the governor voted out of office.