The 3,000-member teaching assistants union at UW-Madison has voted narrowly against seeking official state certification under a controversial new law that prohibits most collective bargaining for most public sector employees.

Under the law signed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker, teachers and other public workers would need to vote for their unions each year in order to bargain for cost-of-living raises. The law no longer allows negotiations on working conditions, benefits or anything else. 

Under the previous law, unions typically certified once, when they formed. 

"Investing resources in this process would divert resources from other forms of activism," said Adrienne Pagac, co-president of the Teaching Assistants' Association.

The new law requires 51 percent of the bargaining unit to vote in favor of the union for it to be recognized by the state. Pagac noted elections are usually decided by a majority of those voting, and that Walker and most other politicians wouldn't be in office if they had to win votes of 51 percent of the electorate.

The certification process is "illegitimate" and designed to sap union resources, Pagac said.

Even though the uncertified union won't be recognized and won't have a legally binding contract to negotiate and enforce, it will continue to fight for good pay and working conditions for members through informal discussions with university managers and through other activism, leaders said.

Pagac said there haven't been serious discussions about work stoppages since March when the collective bargaining bill was before the Legislature. But she said she wouldn't rule out job actions if members feel they are necessary.

The union's members teach thousands of classes, including nearly half of all lecture, discussion and laboratory sections, and they grade most of the papers at the university, Pagac said.

For now, the university is informally following the provisions of the last labor contract. 

"They (the university) will abide by the contract until they don't," Pagac said. "Our membership will decide our response when the time comes."

The decision not to seek state certification wasn't easy for the teaching assistants, who were at the forefront of weeks of massive protests against the new law, Pagac said.

After two and a half hours of debate Thursday night, the certification question was decided in a very close vote, she said. She declined to provide the vote totals.

Union leaders representing state and local government workers said they, too, are leaning toward forgoing certification. Only the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state's largest teachers union, has indicated it plans to seek official union status with the state.

"I believe all of the unions ... are going to have to make difficult decisions about recertification," teachers union president Mary Bell said Friday. 

The others, including the teaching assistants union, said they will still act as unions even if the state doesn't recognize them, and that they will organize members to contribute dues and fight for members' interests in the workplace and the political arena.

"Our members' concerns go beyond just wages," Pagac said. "The reason hundreds of thousands people showed up at the Capitol in the cold (in February and March) isn't because they are concerned only about wages. They are concerned about democracy in the workplace."

Dues drying up

Pagac said the union's first task was signing up members to continue contributing dues. Under the new state law, public employers no longer may collect the dues through payroll deductions. 

The collective bargaining law doesn't affect union employees until their contracts expire, as they have for 22,000 state workers. Unions representing teachers and local government employees are being affected more gradually, but all are feeling the loss of payroll deductions and are seeking dues through new means.

WEAC officials have said contracts are expired for a third of the 98,000 members it had before the law was enacted, and on Monday the union announced it was laying off 42 of its 100 union staffers. AFSCME Council 40, which represented about 32,000 local government workers in Wisconsin, has 3,000 with expired contracts. The council is leaving seven of its 38 staff posts open, officials said.

The teaching assistants union has just two part-time staff. About one in 10 members have signed up to pay $12 to $28 monthly dues, depending on income, through automatic bank withdrawals or credit card payments, Pagac said. More sign-ups likely will occur starting Thursday, when graduate students are due to arrive on campus. 

Its members are among those who'll pay more for health care premiums under the law. Teaching assistants' payments that are as low as $15.50 a month for a single person will rise in September and October to $42. Premium increases will be higher for those with family coverage, Pagac said.

- State Journal reporter Judy Newman contributed to this report.

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