Vote decides fate of school district unions

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Frank Schultz
Wednesday, December 4, 2013

JANESVILLE—Teachers, aides, lunch ladies, custodians and other school district employees are voting this month to determine the future of their unions.

Some school employee unions around the state have recertified previously, but this is a first for many, including about 760 teachers in the Janesville School District.

The 2011 law known as Act 10, which stripped public-employee unions of much of their collective bargaining privileges, also requires annual recertification elections.

The elections are important because they could determine whether the unions can continue bargaining contracts with the school district.

If a union fails to get enough votes, it would be decertified, and it could no longer bargain for wages on behalf of its members, said Peter Davis, chief legal counsel for the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission.

Case in point: The Delavan-Darien School District support staff failed to certify in 2011.

The Delavan-Darien teachers had a successful vote that year, but the support staff no longer bargains as a group for wages, a district spokesman said.

The Kenosha teachers union actually decided not to recertify this year, but it negotiated a contract with the Kenosha School Board, which apparently was willing to recognize the union even if the state did not.

The Kenosha situation was unique. It happened after a Dane County Court found Act 10 unconstitutional, ruling the certification elections should not go forward. And it happened before the state Supreme Court overturned that ruling, allowing the elections to proceed.

The Supreme Court has yet to rule on the constitutionality question.

Meanwhile, an organization called Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty has filed suit, challenging the legality of the Kenosha teachers contract, Davis said.

Each union had to decide by Aug. 30 whether to certify or not.

Two Janesville unions decided not to seek certification, said Jeff Middleton of Council 40 of the Association of Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME.

One of those unions represents Janesville secretaries, clerks and aides. The other represents custodial, food service and maintenance workers. All together, that's about 500 workers.

Middleton said the unions have a good relationship with the Janesville School Board and administration and believe they can discuss wages informally without going through the Act 10-required bargaining process.

Middleton noted the district has invited the unions to “meet-and-confer” sessions about working conditions and benefits—which can no longer be part of union contracts under Act 10.

“They're still talking to us even though we're not certified, but we're also not bargaining. We're just talking,” Middleton said.

It's even conceivable that a school board could award workers a wage increase that is better than they could have gotten under Act 10, Middleton said.

Act 10 limits wage increases to the rate of inflation, but there's no law that would keep a school board from giving employees bigger raises, Middleton said.

Meanwhile, AFSCME is a party to the Act 10 challenge that the state Supreme Court will decide, and Middleton believes key parts of the law should be found unconstitutional.

If a union fails to win recertification, it could continue to lobby on behalf of its members or try to get favorable school board members elected, Davis said.

Act 10 requires a 51 percent margin to recertify, but that's 51 percent of all union members, not a percentage of those who vote. Those who don't vote are counted as no's.

Case in point: Delavan-Darien support staff members, who voted 28-3 in 2011 to certify their union, but the union had 71 members, so they failed to get a majority.

“It's probably the most unfair election you could possibly have because if you don't vote, the state votes for you,” said Michael Walsh, a union staff representative for teachers unions in the Clinton, Beloit Turner, Janesville, Milton and Whitewater school districts.

“It's part of Gov. Walker's plan to try and make it as difficult for unions as much as he can,” Walsh said.

If elections for public offices had the same rule, no one would ever be elected, Walsh said.

Voting, which is done with a phone call to an 800 number, began Nov. 27. The last chance to vote is noon Dec. 19. Davis said the employment relations commission hopes to have preliminary results on its website later that day. 

Walsh complained the elections started the day after Thanksgiving, when workers were not at work and so couldn't be notified of the election.

The employer is required to post or distribute a notice of election, Walsh said, but that couldn't be done until staff returned to work Nov. 30.

“It's one unfair thing after another,” Walsh said.

Members of unions who work for municipal governments have similar elections next spring.

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