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Wisconsin: Health Care, Democracy and the Middle Class Are At Stake

Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill Protest, February 19, 2011. (Photo: mrbula)

“Mom’s in intensive care. Mom says: Go to Madison.”

Such was the conversation with my sister last week as demonstrations erupted across Wisconsin to stop Governor Walker’s union-busting, health-care-gutting, budget “repair” bill. My 88-year-old mother was admitted to the emergency room with heart problems just as a statewide emergency was being unleashed upon the heart of Wisconsin. An immediate and continuing response was, and is, required.

“Go to Madison.” My dad walked the picket line in 1973 when teachers in Watertown went on strike for teachers’ dignity. As I drove to Madison last week, I learned that teachers in Watertown organized a sickout, resulting in the school district being closed for the day. Last November 75 percent of Watertown’s voters cast their ballot for Walker.

As in 1973, public workers today know that the heart of Wisconsin is at stake. Now, with the Wisconsin State Assembly passing the bill Friday morning, Wisconsin is on life support – dependent upon the commitment of 14 Democratic senators who left Wisconsin to prevent a vote on the bill.

Walker is firing the opening salvo upon public worker unions in the same manner that Ronald Reagan fired the opening salvo in wars upon unions in 1981. While the 1970s were hardly an era of labor, it was Reagan’s firing of all striking members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Association (PATCO) in August 1981 that signaled the federal government was fully on the side of the employer. Subsequent strikes at Greyhound, Phelps-Dodge, Hormel, Staley and elsewhere were defeated, with private sector union membership now standing at only 7 percent of the private sector.

Walker, though, may actually be doing Reagan one better. Reagan fired PATCO workers engaged in an illegal strike. Reagan pursued policies antithetical to organized labor. Reagan did not, however, destroy the very fabric of collective bargaining laws. Walker protests that his bill leaves the collective bargaining relationship and unions intact. But it does so in such an eviscerated form as to be ultimately meaningless.

The Republican bill prohibits bargaining over any matter other than the base wage rate. Currently, the law sets forth mandatory matters over which both parties must bargain if one or the other raises it at the table; permissive matters, which the parties may bargain over but only if both sides agree to bargain over it; and prohibited subjects, which cannot be bargained over.

Again, it will be illegal under this bill for any unit of government – be it a school district, city, village, county, etc. – to negotiate with a union over any condition of employment other than the base wage rate (which will be further limited to the increase in the consumer price index, unless a public referendum approves a higher increase). Wage rate increases based upon seniority, professional skills development or added work responsibilities (e.g., team leader, mentor, etc.) cannot be negotiated, nor can overtime rates, holiday pay, sick leave, etc.

Public employers around the state recognize just how devastating this change will be to employer-employee relations. The Wisconsin Association of School Boards and the School Administrators Alliance (which includes the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators) each wrote letters to Walker that state that, while they sought modifications to the state collective bargaining law (especially as it relates to negotiations over health insurance and benefits), they did not seek a complete repudiation of the law. Cities and counties from northwest to southeast Wisconsin are passing resolutions opposing the elimination of collective bargaining.

Walker is attacking health care in this bill, as well as public workers. This bill eliminates all collective bargaining rights – eliminates the very right to form a union – for workers at the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics (UWHC) as well as for the recently unionized home care workers.

Evidently, that $9-per-hour minimum wage that home care workers negotiated (though the state failed to pass the contract) is a wee bit too much money for the state to pay to ensure that individuals are able to live with dignity in their own homes. Walker eliminates the public authority (the Quality Home Care Authority) that Wisconsin created in 2009 that allowed for the unionization of home care workers.

Donna Katen-Bahensky, President and CEO of UWHC, wrote Governor Walker that: “we were surprised to see provisions eliminating collective bargaining for UW Hospital and Clinics Authority (UWHCA) employees. As you know, nearly 5,000 of our 7,500 employees bargain collectively and this has existed since we became a public authority 17 years ago.

“We have a long history of collective bargaining and strong relationships with our labor unions. Eliminating collective bargaining for UWHCA has no fiscal effect to the state since we receive no General Purpose Revenue.”

The University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics Authority was created in 1996 as a quasi-public authority. Home care workers were unionized after the state created the Quality Home Care Authority (eliminated in this bill). The Legislative Reference Bureau of Wisconsin describes such authorities as being not a state agency but also totally state owned and controlled.

The question must be asked: Is Walker’s proposed elimination of collective bargaining rights for workers at UWHCA the signal that he intends to pursue the complete privatization of University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics?

Walker’s bill throws the old one-two punch at health care in Wisconsin. First, it undermines the ability of health care workers to advocate for improved working conditions that improve patient care. Then it gives Walker’s administration the power to unilaterally change the state’s Medical Assistance program, subject only to review by the state legislature’s Joint Finance Committee (dominated by very conservative Republicans) and the minimum standards set by the federal government. The state’s Department of Health Services can make these unilateral changes even if the changes conflict with other existing aspects of state law.

Dennis Smith is the head of Wisconsin’s Department of Health Services. Previously, he ran the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services under President Bush. In this capacity, he worked to block a federal waiver that allowed Wisconsin to establish Senior Care (a prescription drug program to assist the elderly, and ultimately made possible because of the legislative work of Wisconsin’s Senator Kohl). He also indicated in articles that it would be entirely plausible for states to withdraw from Medicaid altogether.

The unilateral changes that are almost certain to be made to Wisconsin’s Medical Assistance program will undermine the health care of the 1.1 million Wisconsin residents who rely upon Medicaid. Essentially, everything is on the table for gutting. The potentially sweeping changes are described on pages 45 to 47 of the Assembly's bill, available online.

Walker's – and the Republicans' – initiative will undermine worker rights and health care in Wisconsin. He proudly proclaims: “Wisconsin is open for business.” Yet a healthy business climate requires a middle class that will be destroyed by his union busting. A healthy business climate requires that workers have access to decent health care, for themselves and their families.

My mom is out of the hospital, making plans for her 89th birthday this summer. Because Wisconsin has had a strong commitment to health care, she is receiving high-quality care for her heart ailment. Because my dad struck for teachers rights and dignity in 1973, she was able to enjoy the retirement benefits my dad earned during his lifetime and avoid sinking into poverty in these, her latter years.

As my mom directed me from her hospital bed: Go to Madison. The heart of Wisconsin depends on you.