Prison guards voted Thursday to break away from the once-powerful Wisconsin State Employees Union, already wobbly at the knees after a 2011 state law effectively ended public sector union rights.
The vote was 1,548-1,108 for the split.
“From the governor’s office on down, everybody is watching this to see if this is the first domino to fall,” said Brian Cunningham, a guard at Waupun Correctional Institution who is interim president of the new union, the Wisconsin Association for Correctional Law Enforcement.
The election makes WACLE the representative for about 5,900 state security and public safety workers, a big chunk of the 22,000 members who belonged to WSEU before Act 10 outlawed most state employee collective bargaining and made union membership voluntary.
WSEU has had to cut staff as its dues-paying membership plummeted, landing below 10,000 earlier this year. Cunningham said only about 660 safety and security bargaining unit members were still paying dues to WSEU.
An additional roughly 2,500 WSEU members could fall off the rolls in 2015 when their contract at University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics expires. The state law doesn’t affect unions that are still under contract.
The victory for the guards union may be fleeting, because it was won with a simple majority of votes cast under Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission rules.
But the new union will need to recertify in a few months under a provision of Act 10 that requires annual approval by 51 percent of all bargaining unit members.
That means recertification will require twice as many votes for the new union — more than 3,015 assuming the unit continues to include 5,913 members. Fewer than 2,900 mailed in ballots by Thursday’s deadline.
State employee bargaining units must file by Aug. 30 for recertification balloting that will take place from Nov. 1 through Nov. 20.
“They are trying to charge down a new path through this new collective bargaining world we have,” said Tim Scheffler, an attorney for WACLE. “Certainly they have some work ahead.”
Cunningham said he wants to begin bargaining for a contract immediately. And he said WSEU could face more challenges from other units whose members have expressed interest in WACLE’s model of cutting dues in half — about $18 monthly compared to about $36 for WSEU — and its promise to be more responsive to member concerns and possibly less involved in electoral politics.
WSEU director Marty Beil has maintained that a smaller union with fewer financial resources would be crushed by the Republicans who took control of state government in the 2010 elections.
WACLE leaders exploited low morale created by Act 10, falling prey to the GOP’s “divide and conquer” tactics, he said.
“We are disappointed that many security and public safety workers were so disillusioned that they chose to essentially go it alone instead of standing with their brothers and sisters in other professions,” Beil said. “We are going to continue fighting for state employees long after the current crop of politicians is gone.”
The law allows certified public sector unions to bargain for cost-of-living pay increases, but government administrators and elected officials have the final say. Working conditions are off the table.
In comments prior to the vote, Beil scoffed at Cunningham’s belief that once WACLE is certified, even with the anemic collective bargaining allowed by Act 10, Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s administration will improve pay and working conditions for prison employees.
The prison workers, who make up the bulk of the state security and public safety bargaining unit WACLE now represents, have chafed as the state Department of Corrections has changed work rules and neglected safety concerns, Cunningham said.
Cunningham said the new union would take legal action to reinstate a provision under which guards were paid for 10 minutes a day to cover time walking to and from their posts from the front gate. Since Act 10, the state has disallowed the practice, paying guards only for time they are at their work stations.
Many of the guards have been vocal in their displeasure when the state employees union has given financial support to liberal candidates.
It was unclear Thursday how WSEU would respond to the election results. The union has eight days to file an objection with WERC over how the election was conducted. Cunningham said he expects WSEU to challenge the separation in court.
Another possible related outcome is something union leaders have talked about since Act 10 passed — retrenchment through some sort of merger between the state employees union and two other American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees councils in Wisconsin: Council 40, which represents mostly state and local government employees throughout the state, and AFSCME Council 48, which covers Milwaukee County.
“Council 40 is willing to talk about what’s in the best interest of the members,” Council 40 director, Rick Badger, said Thursday.
Badger said he was surprised and disappointed by the prison guard vote.
“I know how much all of AFSCME has stood behind the workers ever since Act 10,” Badger said.
Peter Davis, general counsel of the Employment Relations Commission, said the last defection from WSEU was by law enforcement officers. In 2005, a group of 916 officers split from WSEU, said Madison attorney Sally Stix, who represented the police officers and also represents Cunningham’s group.