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Walker comments concern local police and fire unions

By Carrie Vick, cvick@wkbt.com
Published On: Jul 31 2013 05:36:39 PM CDT
Updated On: Jul 31 2013 05:59:59 PM CDT

WKBT, News8000.com

LA CROSSE, WI -

When Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker passed Act 10, ending collective bargaining rights for many public workers a few years ago, police and fire were exempt.

But after comments Walker made in a speech earlier this week, some worry that could soon change.

When Act 10 passed, Walker said he left police and fire out of it because he was worried it would put public safety at risk should workers go on strike.

Now that he seems open to the idea, local officials and unions in La Crosse are speaking out against it, saying the collective bargaining relationship between the city and the departments is healthy and effective.

Comments Walker made earlier this week have some worried he has plans to take away the collective bargaining rights of police and fire departments in the state.

But Walker said he doesn't actually have any plans in place.

"I think that could be included in the discussion mainly because I think the people that predicted more negative outcomes in other areas in terms of public employees just didn't materialize and it's been good for the public employees at both the state and local level," said Walker. "I made an observation per a question. There's no specific proposal that I'm pushing."

It's an answer La Crosse City Councilman Doug Happel doesn't buy.

"I'm responding to my questions I have control over what I say, he has control over what he says," said Happel.

Happel is on the city's Police and Fire Commission and said there's nothing wrong with the current system.

"We have just recently settled a fire contract. In fact, the Fire Department ratified and the City Council will hopefully ratify next week. Those contracts are very good, very reasonable, providing appropriate compensation," said Happel.   

Kyle Dumez with the local fire fighters union said police and fire already pay into their pensions and can't negotiate their health insurance, take away collective bargaining rights and it makes it even harder to bring experienced firefighters to the department.

"We're a little bit worried about recruitment and retention. We have some of the worst health insurance in the state and we're the lowest paid out of our comparables," said Dumez.

And because both departments are already paying in, Jim Palmer, director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, said the state has no financial incentive to take away collective bargaining.

"Is kind of an unfortunate exercise in logic to say if all employees can't have bargaining rights, no one should, and I don't think that's a message that's going to resonate throughout the state," said Palmer.

While Palmer said the state doesn't have much to gain, Happel said city's would have a lot to lose.

"As you take away people's ability to in good faith collectively bargain, you run the risk that it is no longer quite as attractive a profession," said Happel.

The city of La Crosse's human resources director said in the past 15 years the city has never had to go to arbitration with the police and fire unions.

Walker points out there is no current legislation proposed that would take away collective bargaining rights of police and fire unions in the state.

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