Saturday, March 19, 2011

Austin immune to Midwest's mass labor protests, so far

Pretty good analysis of how Texas labor, like 22 other "Right to Work" states that disallow collective bargaining, manages workers' rights. It's a different ballgame altogether.

Quote from Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, who also notes that "a stronger union presence might lead to less cavalier budget reductions."

"If organized labor was stronger, there would be much stronger pushback , and the people in control would be listening better to the people who are going to have their services slashed, their jobs cut," he said."


By Andrew Kaspar
Published: 8:10 p.m. Saturday, March 5, 2011

State budget in crisis? Check. Republican-controlled Legislature and governorship? Check. College town full of liberal sentiment? Check.

Why is it, then, that Texans aren't picketing the statehouse and sleeping in the Capitol Rotunda, à la protesters in Madison, Wis.?

A projected revenue shortfall of as much as $27 billion leaves no shortage of Texas constituencies negatively affected by the budget proposals under consideration, including public sector workers like those who have formed the backbone of the Wisconsin demonstrations.

The missing ingredient, it seems, is a strong union presence to organize and sustain protests, now entering their fourth week in Madison.

Texas is one of 22 "right to work" states, making mandatory union membership illegal for all workers, public and private.

That designation has a direct impact on union strength: In right-to-work states, an average of 6.5 percent of the work force are union members, compared with 14.5 percent in states where employees can be compelled to join a union.

Texas law also prohibits collective bargaining for public workers, the centerpiece of the Wisconsin firestorm. Collective bargaining allows workers' union representatives and employers to negotiate wages and working conditions in binding talks.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has attempted to eliminate most public employees' collective bargaining rights, saying the move is necessary to help balance the state budget.

A recent study by a liberal-leaning research group, Policy Matters Ohio, found that states that ban collective bargaining rights are struggling with slightly larger deficits, on average. Wisconsin's union protesters have agreed to concessions on health benefits and pension plans, but the collective bargaining provision has been a sticking point, bringing the two sides to a political stalemate.

United in impotence

In Texas' public sector, organized labor operates under a patchwork of employment rights, depending on one's occupation and governing authority. The State of Texas, municipalities and school districts all grant workers different rights and employment agreements of varying strength.

Local governments may grant public workers less comprehensive "meet and confer" rights, and some school districts have afforded even less robust "consultation" privileges to educators.

Austin police and firefighters, for example, have been given the ability to negotiate labor contracts with the city. The Austin Police Association, under a special state law passed in the 1990s, received the right to discuss working conditions, benefits and pay with city officials.

Austin firefighters won a similar ability through a citywide vote. But the public safety associations, like virtually all their public sector counterparts, may not strike. And if negotiations do not result in an agreement, the talks are simply discontinued.

"We have only what the local voters want us to have," said Charley Wilkison , director of public affairs for the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas , the state's largest police association. "So instead of us being dependent on politicians who want to make a name for themselves nationally by busting labor, if we have any ability to negotiate, it comes directly from the people we serve."

(Capital Metro drivers and other Austin transit workers are something of an exception. They are members of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1091 , which predates the transit agency's formation, and thus the workers' collective bargaining rights are protected under federal law. To get around the conflict between state and federal law, Capital Metro 20 years ago set up what is in theory an independent subsidiary to employ and negotiate with what are government employees in all but name.)

With more than 18,000 members, Wilkison's federation contracts with local law enforcement groups across the state, providing legal counsel and whatever representation it can, based on the local labor law in effect.

Texas state employees are granted no way to formally weigh in on working conditions or wages. The 300,000-plus employees of state agencies and higher education institutions have the right to organize, but dialogue and negotiations are at the whim of management's willingness to hear their concerns.

"We're prohibited from having any kind of a contractual relationship with our employer," said Mike Gross , vice president of the 12,000-member Texas State Employees Union .

The largest bloc of Texas' public employees — the state's 330,000 teachers — are fractured on the fundamental question of the Wisconsin debate. Of Texas' four biggest teachers associations, two favor collective bargaining, and two oppose it.

Even as the state's pro-union advocates watch Midwest labor battles unfold over rights they've never had, Texas' state employees earn about 17 percent less than private sector workers of comparable education and experience. The national average is 11 percent less, according to a study by two University of Wisconsin — Milwaukee professors.

Public sector sacrifices

While Gov. Rick Perry strives to enact policies that make Texas "open for business," his small-government philosophy in the face of growing state needs and sagging tax receipts is sending quite the opposite message to those considering a life in public service.

Texas' budget proposals, for example, do not allocate resources for the 80,000 new students who enter school each year. Instead, school districts will probably be forced to increase class sizes, and teachers might also be asked to give up preparation periods. At the Texas Education Agency, hundreds are being laid off at the same time the agency is slated to play a central part in rolling out a new statewide testing regimen next fall.

All state employees are likely to see state contributions to their pensions reduced, from 6.95 to 6 percent, the minimum allowable under the state Constitution. More than 9,000 state workers could lose their jobs, and every state agency has already cut back under orders to trim 7.5 percent from their budgets ending Aug. 31.

Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth , said a stronger union presence might lead to less cavalier budget reductions. Burnam has been a member of the Communications Workers of America since he joined the Legislature in 1997. Burnam, a civil rights consultant, obtained his membership as a legislator, his office said.

"If organized labor was stronger, there would be much stronger pushback , and the people in control would be listening better to the people who are going to have their services slashed, their jobs cut," he said.

What gains unions have achieved locally may be subject to the same state-level assault occurring in Wisconsin, as Texas' mayors and school boards find their ability to balance budgets hampered by wages and benefits won by organized labor.

"Everything you see in Texas, where people have employment rights, it's all very, very tentative," Wilkison said. "There are trigger mechanisms there that allow local voters to undo it whenever they want."

There is also an element of urgency to the Wisconsin upheaval that Texas lacks. In Madison, a governor's ambitious budget bill attempted in one week to wipe out union gains that have stood for more than half a century. In Austin, the slow simmer of the budget shortfall's implications will play out over 140 legislative days.; 482-8516

Additional material from staff writers

Tony Plohetski and Ben Wear.

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