State prison guards are trying to break away from the Wisconsin State Employees Union in a bitter fight over election setbacks, discontent with labor leaders, and anger about working conditions after 17 months under a state law that all but eliminated public sector union rights.
If the guards succeed, it would be another blow to WSEU, one of a half-dozen major public employee unions still reeling from Act 10, the 2011 labor law that prohibited almost all collective bargaining and banned automatic dues collections.
WSEU director Marty Beil said the guards are in for a rude awakening if they succeed in their plan to form an independent union with lower dues and a smaller staff, because they would lack sufficient resources to serve members.
WSEU has deployed its seven field representatives and five organizers from other states to persuade the guards to return to the fold, Beil said. But the leader of the splinter movement insisted it's too late for that.
"We tried to change our union from the inside," said Brian Cunningham, a guard at the Waupun Correctional Institution who is interim president of the new group. "They didn't realize there was such a hunger to do what we're doing."
Cunningham said he has filed more than 1,900 signatures demanding a new union for about 5,800 prison workers, game wardens and other state employees classified as security and public safety employees. A vote could take place as soon as early next year.
WSEU's dues-paying membership of 22,000 has plummeted to less than 10,000 since Act 10 passed, forcing cuts in organizing staff, Beil said. Losing the guards would hurt.
Leaders of the break-away effort are veteran union members, Beil said, but they won't have the experience or financial resources to serve members in complex arenas such as the Legislature and the courts.
"They are going to get slaughtered, but they won't listen to anything, and I just don't know how to stop them from walking down that path," Beil said.
At odds over recall endorsement
Cunningham and another Waupun guard, Dan Meehan, said Beil has been arrogant with members, rude to elected officials and that he too often leads the elected union executive board instead of taking its direction.
Meehan was WSEU vice president and among those who opposed the union endorsement of Kathleen Falk as Democratic Party candidate in the June recall election to oust Gov. Scott Walker, who had championed Act 10. Falk lost in the Democratic primary to Tom Barrett, who lost to Walker in the general election.
Meehan lost his seat on the board in an election he and Cunningham claim was marred by irregularities. They could have complained to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — WSEU is one of three AFSCME councils in Wisconsin — but didn't think they would get a fair shake, Cunningham said.
Beil said Meehan and Cunningham are sore losers who are twisting the truth.
Recertification an issue
Cunningham said his main reason for seeking a new union is that WSEU failed to recertify with the state after Act 10. Most major unions opposed seeking official state status. They said the new law made certification too costly and difficult, while allowing bargaining on nothing but an annual cost of living raise and providing workers with no clout to win even that.
But Cunningham insists that certification would allow guards to persuade prison managers to fix what he said are serious, morale-killing problems involving safety, scheduling and overtime.
He cites a statement he attributed to Waupun Warden William Pollard. "He said 'You're not certified, so I'm not talking to you,'" Cunningham said.
Pollard didn't return phone calls Friday. State Department of Corrections spokeswoman Jackie Guthrie said there are many channels for Cunningham and other employees to voice complaints and make suggestions.
In for a surprise
Cunningham, who identified himself as a lifelong Republican, said he disagrees with Walker on some issues, including Act 10, but Beil has alienated GOP leaders with excessive attacks.
Beil said he has maintained working relations with state leaders, even though he takes them to task for anti-union actions.
Prison guards are understandably angry about their treatment by management, and justifiably upset about Walker's win in the recall, but they are in for a surprise if they expect the governor to become their friend, Beil said.
"Now we're going to have small unions and we're going to sidle up to Scott Walker and he's going to treat us differently?" Beil said. "That just isn't grounded in reality."
For his part, Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie said the governor harbors no hard feelings toward Beil, and he respects correctional workers.
Possible election next year
Tensions have long existed between relatively conservative prison guards and other more urban members of large, diverse public sector unions, said Will Jones, a UW-Madison professor who specializes in AFSCME history.
"In some ways it makes sense, if there are political tensions, for workers to elect leadership that reflects their views," Jones said. "But in this environment it would be difficult for an independent union to survive without affiliation to an international union like AFSCME. If they have to go on strike or get into a big legal battle they won't have the reserves that AFSCME would provide."
An election could be held early next year if the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission verifies that signatures of 30 percent of bargaining unit members have been filed and after union complaints about the process are settled, said commission general counsel Peter Davis.
Davis 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.