A year ago, thousands of UW-Madison students, faculty, and staff marched to the Capitol to oppose Governor Walker’s radical attempts to destroy Wisconsin’s 50-year tradition of collective bargaining. Today, the Governor faces a recall, and a federal court has struck down some of the most onerous parts of Act 10. Yet UW-Madison may be on the verge of realizing the Governor’s anti-worker vision on campus.
In the 2011-2013 state biennial budget, the Joint Finance Committee granted UW-Madison the authority to create a new personnel system in Human Resources. This legislation implicitly acceded to the creation of a public authority model that had sparked contentious debate about the relationship between UW-Madison and the state in the past year. Currently, eleven work teams are drafting recommendations for a new human resources system through the HR Design Project.
To ensure that readers understand what is occurring, it is essential to define a few key terms about employment on campus. Classified staff, or public employees hired through the civil service system, include blue-collar workers, technical workers, clerical workers, and the trades. Many classified staff were unionized before the implementation of Act 10. Academic staff are also public employees in UW System but are “unique to higher education” as defined in state statute. They include non-faculty lecturers, researchers, many administrators, and academic advisors. Academic staff are not subject to the same civil service system rules as classified staff and have been protected under statutory governance rights since the mid-1980s.
One noteworthy and perhaps soon-to-be notorious recommendation comes from the Employee Categories Work Team. This group has proposed to dissolve classified staff status and combine those workers with academic staff. What does this mean? Not only did Act 10 and the 2011-2013 biennial budget reduce the scope of collective bargaining rights to one compensation issue, wages, it also stripped faculty and staff in UW System of the statutory right to collectively bargain. If the state legislature does not amend these statutes, the combining formerly classified staff–the custodians, the office secretaries, financial specialists–into the employee category academic staff will take away the few remaining collective bargaining rights that they have fought and bargained for about 50 years.
The Employee Categories Work Team voted to explore this proposal because of two perceived benefits. First, it extends statutory governance rights to formerly classified staff. However, a proposal that retains a “classified staff” category and expands governance through university policy to this category can still allow for collective bargaining. The expansion of governance rights through university policy also may strengthen the diversity on many campus committees. Furthermore, governance rights are inherently weaker than bargaining rights because governance lacks contractual rights and are even perceived to be advisory by faculty and staff leadership. (ASM, however, disagrees.)
Second, the Employee Categories Work Team sought to improve workplace climate by reducing the “caste system” that currently exists between classified and academic staff, but disparities in recruitment, compensation, and benefits based on category primarily contribute to the caste system, rather than which category is marked on employee files. We do not believe that the dissolution of the classified category will mend historical issues in disparities in compensation and benefits. Furthermore, erecting barriers to collective bargaining for 5,500 employees who have already taken a pay cut this year because of Act 10’s hike in benefits contributions certainly will not improve workplace climate. The preservation of a civil service system, which prevents favoritism and the caste system that arises from favoritism, does in fact improve workplace climate by promoting a more fair workplace.
As student appointees to HR Design Work Teams, we do not support the combining of classified staff and academic staff. We realize that collective bargaining rights, as they currently stand after Act 10, are incredibly weak, and that “advisory” shared governance rights are, at best, a temporary solution to diminished bargaining rights and do not constitute a long-term answer to restoring their strength. But we also hope that the state’s mistake of greatly reducing collective bargaining rights will be reversed in the near future.
How do we ensure that classified staff, formerly protected by bargaining rights, have rights in the workplace right now and can regain their bargaining rights in the shortest possible amount of time after statutory change? How do we protect the current and future bargaining rights of university employees? We urge the Employee Categories Work Team pursue their mission to protect the current and future bargaining rights by preserving an employee category for workers represented by unions. To diminish the presence of a “caste system,” we recommend extending governance through university policy as well as reforming policy barriers to moving between classified and academic staff, rather than eliminating “classified staff” as well as their bargaining rights. While students want to end the caste system and improve workplace culture, the recommendation of the Employee Categories Work Team is not the solution.
Kevin Walters, member of HR Design Advisory Committee
Beth Huang, member of HR Design Employee Categories Work Team
Joshua Brazee, member of HR Design Benefits Work Team
Michael Mirer, member of HR Design Compensation Work Team
Allie Gardner, former chair of the Associated Students of Madison
Adrienne Pagac, Co-President of the Teaching Assistants Association
Alex Hanna, Co-President of the Teaching Assistants Association
Leland Pan, Dane County Board Supervisor, former member of HR Design Advisory Committee