WASHINGTON – Judging from the furor over collective bargaining that has roiled several Midwestern states, it would be easy to conclude that changes in union bargaining rights are rare events. In fact, states change their collective bargaining rules frequently, and often without much protest or even much dissent.
When Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels took office in 2005, one of his first acts on the job was to issue an executive order rescinding collective bargaining rights for state workers. In contrast to the recent tumult in Wisconsin, Ohio and now Indiana, the unions were fairly quiet about it in 2005. No protests erupted outside the Capitol. No legislators fled the state to hold up Daniels’ agenda.
“It was a very quiet transition, to our surprise,” recalls Daniel Hackler, Indiana’s state personnel director.
In many states, collective bargaining rights have been a fleeting thing that can easily come and go with changes in administration. In 12 states, collective bargaining for state employees doesn’t exist.
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Today, with Republicans resurgent in state capitals, the tide is running against unions. Not long ago, however, it was the unions that seemed to have the advantage. The governors of Colorado and Kentucky issued executive orders in 2007 and 2008 that were designed to give state workers a greater voice in setting policies, although the result in both states fell short of collective bargaining. Washington state adopted collective bargaining for public workers for the first time in 2002. The rights have remained in place ever since.
As a national debate over collective bargaining heats up, Indiana and Washington state represent case studies of states that have moved in opposite directions. Their experiences offer evidence to support the claims of both unions and their detractors. They’re also a reminder that the rules of engagement between labor and management in the states varies widely according to how the rules are set up – and changed – over time.
Indiana is not like Wisconsin or Ohio. Unlike in those states, collective bargaining rights have never been enshrined in statute in Indiana. Nor are they as deeply rooted in Indiana’s history and political culture.
Former Democratic Gov. Evan Bayh gave state employees collective bargaining rights through an executive order in 1989. The Democratic governors who followed Bayh extended those rights. But the unions understood that rights given by the governor’s office could just as easily be taken away by subsequent governors.
When Daniels took them away from state worker unions in 2005, he justified the decision as necessary to implement a government reform agenda in a timely manner. In particular, he argued that the change would make it easier to create a separate agency to handle the state’s scandal-ridden child welfare system. Daniels also said he wanted to compensate state employees based on performance, while making it easier to terminate known problem employees, such as child welfare workers who had been responsible for putting children at risk but could not be sanctioned because of union agreements.
State Personnel Director Hackler says that the decision has played out largely as the administration hoped it would. In his view, the change actually benefited employees in many ways, such as increasing employee morale and helping decrease turnover. The average pay for state employees has increased. And high-performing employees can be rewarded with pay increases and even on-the-spot bonuses of up to $1,000 when they accomplish something exceptional.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, one of the leading public employee unions in Indiana, has a different take on the results. A fact sheet from the union points out economic indicators that have slipped in Indiana, relative to the rest of the country, since 2005, and notes the high-profile failure of Indiana’s attempt to outsource some social services functions.
Washington state’s experience with collective bargaining shows that it comes with real benefits for state workers and real costs for the state budget. But it’s also clear that it doesn’t necessarily prevent a state from imposing austerity when a budget crisis hits.
You can see that in the contract that the Washington Federation of State Employees, Washington’s largest state worker union, agreed to last month. That contract included furloughs that will cut pay by 3 percent and raises the share of health care costs workers have to pay from 12 percent to 15 percent.
Union officials began asking for bargaining power in 1989. They say they felt as though they were under assault from increasingly unsympathetic state legislators. Under law, they could bargain only on working condition issues, not pay and benefits.
Their cause got a big boost in 1994 when then-Gov. Mike Lowry, a Democrat, proposed coupling collective bargaining rights with civil service changes and broader latitude to contract out government services – at the time, state law forbid outsourcing work that was being done by state employees. This deal became known as the “three-legged stool.” It was finally adopted in Olympia in 2002, after Democrats won control of the Legislature.
Karen Keiser, a labor-friendly state senator from Kent, says that one reason for the move was to make the relationship between management and state workers less contentious. In 2001, for example, state employees used rolling walkouts to gain leverage, even though strikes were illegal.
“It’s extremely important to have a voice that has parity at the table and is in place because they have legal standing to talk about issues,” Keiser says. “We have a good, adult relationship with state employees.”
That relationship has served the workers well. Before collective bargaining, state workers rarely received cost-of-living raises. In 2004, workers won 4.8 percent cost-of-living raises over two years, despite the presence of a state budget shortfall. In 2006, with the economy booming, state workers enjoyed two-year raises as large as 25 percent. In September 2008, the week before Lehman Brothers collapsed, WFSE reached a two-year deal for 2 percent annual pay raises.