Texplainer: Can Wisconsin Happen Here?

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Hey, Texplainer: The Wisconsin governor’s fight with the public and government employees there got me to wondering whether our public employees are unionized. And what do they pay for their pensions and health care insurance?

Gov. Scott Walker should come to Texas, where much of what he’s seeking already exists. As a right-to-work state, Texas prohibits unions and employees from making union membership and/or the payment of dues mandatory as a condition of employment. The right to bargain collectively — which Walker is trying to strip from some public and state employees — is also generally restricted. It isn’t even allowed among state employees. No public employee in Texas may legally go on strike. Not surprisingly, unions have significantly less power here and in other right-to-work states than in labor strongholds like Wisconsin.

Still, some workers in Texas are unionized — about 5.4 percent of the total labor force here (including private and public jobs) belongs to a union, compared to 14.2 of Wisconsin’s total labor force. Firefighters and police officers in most big Texas cities have collective bargaining rights, says Ed Sills, spokesman for Texas AFL-CIO, as do Houston’s city employees. They have that right because the municipalities have voted to allow it.

Texas public school teachers may vote to have a group represent them in discussions with school management in a process known as “elected consultation” — if the local school board allows it. Elective consultation is similar but not identical to collective bargaining, with the most crucial difference being that any agreement reached through elected consultation is not binding on the school board, says Rob D’Amico, spokesman for the Texas branch of the American Federation of Teachers, one of several public school employee organizations. Texas AFT represents 65,000 public school employees but not administrators.

As for the financial concessions sought by Walker from some of the government unions, those are possible in Texas, too; public employees here are very likely to take a hit by the end of the session. In Wisconsin, the governor wants government workers to pay 5.8 percent of their salaries into their pensions, up from less than 1 percent now. His proposal would raise the amount they pay for their health insurance premiums from about 6 percent to 12.6 percent. The unions have already agreed to these concessions.

Here, the state and its employees contribute to the Employees Retirement System of Texas, which oversees retirement benefits for state employees. Currently, state employees pay about 6.5 percent of their salaries into their pensions with the state matching that amount; the state is required to at least match those contributions. Proposed legislation would bring that percentage down to 6 percent, the minimum amount allowed by the state’s constitution. 

The ERS also oversees the state employee health care program, which would be changed. The state currently pays 100 percent of the premiums for state employees, but both the House and Senate budgets would slash funding for ERS by almost $600 million. That could mean state employees would pay almost $100 a month for individuals or $135 for families toward their insurance costs or they face deductibles as high as almost $4,000 for individuals and almost $12,000 for families, says Andy Homer, a spokesman for the Texas Public Employees Association, a non-union professional association representing the 150,000 state employees.

While the state’s health care coverage for its employees is more generous than some private employers, Homer cautions that it is misleading to believe that public workers are markedly better off than private workers when all compensation is considered.

“Eighty-one percent of all general state employees — I’m not talking about higher ed — make $50,000 or less,” he says. “It’s a pretty low-wage work force, and it’s the nature of our benefit package. It’s been lower wage, and we try to make up for it in some extent with decent benefits. So we are really concerned about this potential shift all of these costs to all these people.”

According to a study by the Economic Policy Institute, public sector employees across the country are paid 11 percent less than private sector employees on average when comparing only wages. When looking at total compensation, including employer-provided benefits, private sector workers still earned about 3 percent more than public employees.

While public and government workers face increases in what they will have to pay for their benefits, there is also a real likelihood of significant layoffs. An estimated 100,000 school district jobs and nearly 10,000 state worker positions could be eliminated as the state works to close its projected shortfall of between $15 billion and $27 billion.

“The bigger problem is the way the budget is proposed now in the House and Senate it simply going to hack away tens of thousands of jobs,” Sills says. “It could propel Texas’ unemployment rate significantly as well. One hundred and ten thousand is a significant amount. It could bump Texas’ unemployment rate up to 10 percent.”

Bottom line: The situation for state and public workers in Texas is dramatically different from that of their counterparts in Wisconsin.

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