Apparently Gov. Scott Walker knew exactly what he was doing.
Before he signed the bill limiting collective bargaining privileges, teachers unions throughout the state were slow to respond to calls for salary and benefit concessions.
They believed their members should be held harmless during a period of necessary cost-cutting. They didn't seem to care that Wisconsin schools were operating with multi-million dollar deficits that were forcing the layoffs of younger teachers and the cancellation of student programs.
Their only answer was to raise taxes at a time when few people could afford it. They didn’t want to sacrifice anything, despite the fact that schools spend about 80 percent of their budgets on labor costs.
But now, with Walker's legislation set to become law once it clears legal hurdles, the unions are suddenly coming to their senses. They are jumping at the chance to extend their collective bargaining agreements, in exchange for meaningful concessions that will help schools survive the financial crisis.
In Madison, the teachers union has suddenly agreed to a wage freeze and increases in health insurance and pension contributions. The concessions will save the district an estimated $15 million next year, which would almost make up for the expected cuts in state aid.
In Oshkosh, the union has agreed to a wage freeze, increased contributions toward benefits and a change in the employee insurance carrier, which will save the district more than $5 million per year.
In the Slinger district, the union has agreed to commit 5.8 percent of teacher pay to pension costs and increase contributions toward health care costs. The concessions will save the district about $1.3 million per year. What are the unions gaining by accepting concessions at the last possible minute? Plenty.
They are salvaging things like automatic annual salary increases for teachers, a generous number of paid sick and personal days off, reimbursement for unused sick days, salary and benefits for union officials who do not teach, retirement bonuses, overage pay for teachers with a few extra students, and many other items.
Those contractual perks would have gone by the wayside if local collective bargaining agreements had been allowed to expire. Under the new law, the unions will not have the power to negotiate for many of the items listed in current contracts.
So the unions will save some time-honored perks and schools will save a lot of money. This type of compromise would not have occurred without pressure from Gov. Walker and his supporters in the legislature.
Perhaps the governor knew exactly what he was doing by creating a crisis and forcing the unions to face financial reality. Nothing else seemed to be working and schools were drowning in deficits.
Ironically, the loss of collective bargaining privileges would not have been necessary if the unions would have come to their senses months ago and started offering meaningful concessions. They lost most of their privileges by remaining stubborn for too long.