Two bills announced today could change the working conditions for state and municipal employees.
Ron Martin is an 8th grade teacher in Eau Claire. He is also the president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council. He says the dismantling of collective bargaining, a key policy of former Governor Scott Walker enacted in 2011, has led to more teachers leaving the profession.
“Make no mistake, when educators don’t have the freedom to stand up for themselves, it hurts our students,” Martin explains. “When educators are forced to live by a law that tells them to do what they are told and keep their mouth shut, it hurts. It hurts students.”
State Senator Chris Larson of Milwaukee co-authored the bills. Larson says Wisconsin’s middle class was historically safeguarded by workers’ ability to organize and negotiate. But he blames current laws for stagnant wages.
“”Frankly the folks who are working for the state, the people working for units of government, are the key leaders, right? And we want to make sure we are building up neighborhoods, not trying to tear people down. If we are tearing down the people who are the frontline face of Wisconsin, we are tearing down Wisconsin,” Larson argues.
The first bill looks to expand employees’ ability to organize. It would allow employees to bargain for wage increases of any size, as well as hours and working conditions for most state employees. Co-author and representative Jonathan Brostoff of Milwaukee blames Republicans for the dismantling of union rights.
“All we’re talking about is just people getting together talking and fighting for their rights,” Brostoff says. “And unfortunately under Republican leadership in this state, that has been ripped away from them, and that is not what this country is about. That is not what our state is about. That is not what we’re about, and we’re here to reinstate that freedom, and make sure everyone gets access to organize.”
This bill would also allow a labor unions to be represented in negotiations by someone with a simple majority of voting employees. Currently the law is that representatives need support of 51 percent of all employees.
The second bill would make changes to how state employees are hired and fired. The probationary period would decrease from a year to six months, and employees could more easily be promoted to new jobs. The bill would also allow layoffs to be determined by both performance and seniority. Currently employers may only assess performance when making layoff decisions.
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Representative Chris Taylor of Madison is a coauthor of the bills. She argues that the bills will raise the standard for all employers–not just the state.
“Fairness and freedom for workers is fundamental to our state’s success,” she stresses.
“Workers who make the pie should get more than just the crumbs of the pie. They should get a nice healthy slice. This is also an issue of racial equity. We know we struggle as a state with some of the worst racial disparities in the nation. Research shows that having the freedom to negotiate for better wages and better working conditions is one piece of the solution to closing the wage gap that our Black and Hispanic workers are continuing to experience and suffer in our state.”
The bills are circulating the legislature for cosponsors and will be introduced next month.