Thursday, February 24, 2011

Union Battle in Wisconsin: Is RI Next?

by Stephen Beale, GoLocalProv News Editor

A plan to strip Wisconsin public workers of their collective bargaining rights has ignited a national controversy and drawn thousands of protestors to the state capital.

Some state reps say it’s just what Rhode Island needs—minus, perhaps, all those protests.

“I would try it in a heartbeat. Absolutely. No two ways about it,” said Doreen Costa, a freshman Republican rep from Exeter. “This state’s broke. Everybody’s got to cut.”

Costa, who is a leader in the Tea Party movement, is not alone. “I’m going to looking into putting the bill in Rhode Island just to see what happens,” said state Rep. Joe Trillo, R-Warwick. “I think the hard reality has set in, in Wisconsin. Rhode Island is still delusional.”

As part of his plan, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker also wants state workers to pay 5.8 percent toward their pensions and 12 percent of their health care benefits—saving an estimated $30 million in the last three months of the current fiscal year, which has a $137 million deficit.

Like Wisconsin, Trillo said Rhode Island has to rein in the cost of health care and retirement benefits for public employees. A Rhode Island version of what Walker has proposed, as harsh as it may sound, is better than the alternative, according to Trillo. “It’s either that or go bankrupt,” he said. “I’m thinking it’s still worth a shot to try to convince people we need to do something radical.”

‘We may be forced into a situation that may resemble Wisconsin’

One Republican leader in the state Senate agreed that the Wisconsin scenario could play out in Rhode Island. “I question if leadership in organized labor realizes that the path we are on is unsustainable,” said Frank Maher, the Deputy Minority Leader and a Republican from Exeter. “If labor is not willing to make serious concessions on behalf of their current or future membership, we may be forced into a situation that may resemble Wisconsin. I hope that doesn’t happen but the answer is not related to more taxes to fund the liability or obligations we have.”

Senator Marc Cote, D-Woonsocket, North Smithfield, also said he hopes Rhode Island doesn’t end up like Wisconsin. “I don’t think it’s necessary if you have people that are reasonable and come to the table,” Cote said. “If it can’t be achieved through that, that may be what has to happen, but I would hope that it doesn’t come to that.”

It’s not clear just how far such a proposal could get. The current political climates in the two states could not be more different: In Wisconsin, the GOP swept to power in the House and Senate in the last election while the Rhode Island General Assembly remains solidly Democratic. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is a Tea Party favorite. Governor Lincoln Chafee is seen as a union ally.

State Senator John Tassoni, D-Smithfield, dismissed any local Republican efforts to replicate the Wisconsin proposal as attempts to get attention. “When they do things like this, it’s not about solutions, it’s about grabbing headlines,” said Tassoni, who is a member of the executive board of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO.

Tassoni said the tactics being used in Illinois reminded him of something out of former Gov. Don Carcieri’s playbook. But he expects better from Chafee—not necessarily because he is a union supporter, but because of the new governor’s overall approach to working with others, Tassoni said. “This is not something like rocket science,” he said. “It’s about listening to people … trying to fix the problems we have.”

‘A total devastating effect’ on unions

Stripping away collective bargaining rights would have a “devastating” impact on workers, according to the head of Rhode Island Council 94 of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees. “It would change everything,” said J. Michael Downey, president of the union. “You couldn’t negotiate a contract. It would just be told to you. It would have a total devastating effect on collective bargaining.”

“I think it’s a shame that people would try to strip workers of their rights,” Downey added. “We have fought long and hard … for rights in the workplace.”

He says states don’t need to whittle away collective bargaining rights in order to win concessions from unions. He points to the recent agreement between Gov. Don Carcieri and state workers on increases to health care co-pays and a dozen furlough days between 2010 and 2011 as evidence that the collective bargaining process works.

Union leader: We pay taxes too

If lawmakers are really interested in cutting the budget, Downey says they should take a look at how many outside contractors and temporary workers the state hires. A private plumber, he said, makes three to four times the hourly wage that a state-employed plumber does. Eliminating outside contractors, he said, would save money. He said reps and senators should also take a hard look at the pension benefits their former colleagues receive.

“When you can save taxpayer money, we want to know about it,” Downey said. “Public employees pay taxes too.”

Wisconsin and Rhode Island: How do they compare?

In Wisconsin, the projected deficit for fiscal year 2012 is considerably higher than Rhode Island’s—$1.8 billion compared to $290 million, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. But when the deficit is viewed as a percent of their respective 2011 budgets, the two states are closer. In Wisconsin, the 2012 deficit equals 12.8 percent of what is being spent in the current year. In Rhode Island, the deficit is 9.9 percent.

When it comes to unfunded pension liabilities, however, Rhode Island is actually worse off than Wisconsin. The Badger State has an unfunded pension liability in the millions, while Rhode Island’s liability is in the billions—$252.6 million versus $4.3 billion, according to the Pew Center on the States. The center rates Wisconsin’s state pension system as a “solid performer” while Rhode Island is labeled as having “serious concerns.”

Costa and Trillo say they still have some research to do before they know how they would try to adapt the Wisconsin reforms to Rhode Island.

For one thing, it’s not clear which unions would be most affected. As in Wisconsin, Trillo said he would exempt police officers and firefighters. He also wasn’t sure state workers would be included.

He said the focus should be on teachers and municipal workers. “That’s where the most serious problems are,” Trillo said. “Unfunded pension liabilities are astronomical. They’re unsustainable and the only solution cities and towns have is to cut back services and you can’t cut enough services to solve the problem.”

Other states, such as Ohio and Indiana, are already following Wisconsin’s lead. “I think Wisconsin is going to be a bellwether for issues that are going to be blowing across America. Whether it takes root in Rhode Island remains to be seen,” said House Minority Leader Bob Watson, R-East Greenwich.

“The solutions that may be necessary in Rhode Island may or may not mirror what’s going on in Wisconsin,” he added.

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