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Politics & Government

Reflecting on the Legacy of Act 10, as Trump Considers Shaking Up Federal Workforce

Andy Stenz
Public workers and others flocked to Madison six years ago to protest Gov. Walker's cuts to collective bargaining rights

President Donald Trump wants to slash the federal workforce, according to the Washington Post. It reports that Trump is preparing to announce the biggest cuts in decades, believing the government employs too many people -- wasting taxpayers' money.

The Republican president's plan may shock many. Yet here in Wisconsin, it may remind people of the move Gov. Scott Walker made shortly after he took office in 2011: Act 10.  He insisted it would save taxpayer money by stripping most public unions of their power. Walker said by limiting bargaining rights, state and local governments would have more control over wages and benefits. As a result, he said they'd be able to manage tough budgets.

Walker signed Act 10 into law six years ago following a month of pandemonium in Madison. It erupted with Walker's surprise announcement of Act 10. Protesters flooded the Capitol, and critics began talking about booting the Republican governor from office. All 14 Democratic senators fled the state to try to prevent a vote on Act 10.

Meanwhile, supporters praised the governor at smaller -- yet lively -- rallies. Republican lawmakers maneuvered to push Act 10 through the Legislature. Walker's triumph propelled him onto the national stage and paved the way for his presidential bid. It's still a major part of his political identity. Just last month, Walker talked up the law at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

"On economic and fiscal policy, we see that even though we inherited a $3.6 billion budget deficit, our state now has budget surpluses. And we have one of the few state systems that has a fully-funded pension system, and we have one of the lowest outstanding overall long-term debt," Walker said.

Also earlier this year, Walker said he talked to Vice President Mike Pence about Act 10, and offered his help if the Trump administration decides to pursue something similar.

It would be a big mistake according to Rick Badger, executive director of AFSCME, the Wisconsin state employees union. He says Act 10 has had a "pretty severe" negative impact.

"The results are in. Six years into Act 10, it's actually reduced the level of public service that Wisconsin is used to having," Badger says.

Badger says once the law was passed, a record number of experienced state employees quit. He says the state has been struggling to replace them, including in prisons.

"They have folks who go through the corrections academy and they come in. Folks only stay for a short period of time. They'll quit. That has to do with the pay. That has to do with the workloads. That has to do with the nature of the work. But the reality is we didn't have those same problems before Act 10, and so I think there's a direct correlation," Badger says.

Teachers also left their jobs in droves, contributing to a shortage that still plagues the state. Kim Schroeder is president of the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association.

"When Act 10 came down, MPS lost approximately 1,000 teachers, educational assistants, social workers, school nurses and so on and so forth to retirement," Schroeder says.

Membership in public unions dwindled, curbing their political power.

"Essentially, collective bargaining is dead in the public sector," says Cheryl Maranto, a professor of management at Marquette University. She says before Act 10, about half of public workers belonged to unions. But now, "we're down to about a quarter of public sector employees who are union members and that -- I don’t have the breakout by industry -- I'm guessing a lot of that is police and firefighters who were exempted from Act 10."

Critics of Act 10 claim it was designed to weaken public unions. Gov. Walker maintains it has all been about saving taxpayer money. The Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance analyzed the numbers after the law's first year. President Todd Berry says the group estimates municipalities saved $100 million in that first year. As for schools, "the savings to the school districts were something in the neighborhood of $450 million a year, which more or less covered them for the cuts in revenue limits and state aid that they received that year. So they were more or less made whole."

Yet Berry adds Act 10 was not designed to create big numbers continually. He says the sizable savings in the first year came from legislation requiring workers to make larger benefit contributions. Berry says once you make those changes, they don’t generate new savings year after year.

It's not clear whether President Trump plans to push a strategy along the lines of Act 10. This week, his interest in shaking up the federal workforce appears to be focused on making big cuts in staffing and programs. According to the Washington Post, Trump would slash specific departments, for instance by cutting EPA staffing by about 20 percent.

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