Most Wis. Unions Recertify Despite Voting Problems

The union recertification elections in Wisconsin, which concluded Thursday, resulted in about a 90 percent success rate for the local teachers unions that participated, according to Wisconsin Education Association Council spokesperson Christina Brey.

"It's very exciting for WEAC members," Brey said. 'Those local associations who decided to recertify saw overwhelming success."

Fewer support staff locals participated in the elections, but also won a majority of the elections where they were held, for a total of about an 80 percent success rate.

Union leaders hastened to point out that local unions will still exist even if they don’t recertify.

"Those unions still exist, and we will be looking for ways to engage the community on workplace issues," Brey said.

About 40 percent of local unions around Wisconsin refused to take part in recertification and are foregoing state recognition since, even if they did recertify, Act 10 limits their bargaining rights to the extremely narrow issue of “base wages” and cost of living adjustments. But 60 percent of local unions took part in recertification in the hope that a strong win would send a message to employers and the governor.

Those who did participate "overcame a lot of union-busting obstacles and unfair elections," Brey said. "This just shows how determined they are,"

The obstacles included both the high bar to recertification and major problems with the state-administered voting process.

Under Act 10, public-worker unions have to hold these elections each year in order to be state-recognized bargaining representatives for their membership. And not only do they have to win a majority of the vote, they have to garner "yes" votes from 51 percent of their total membership. Members who don’t cast votes are counted as “no” votes.

Legal challenges to this incredibly high bar, among other aspects of the law, went all the way to the state Supreme Court, where attorney Lester Pines pointed out that not a single sitting justice on the Court could survive this standard. Imagine, in a spring election with 20 to 30 percent turnout, trying to win 51% of all eligible voters in Wisconsin. "None of you would make it," Pines pointed out.

But that didn't persuade a majority on the Court to stop the elections. Nor did it stop the state from moving forward with them immediately, as soon as the Court cleared the way--on a very compressed timeline.

While Act 10 was tied up in court, Peter G. Davis of the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission warned in an affidavit that if the courts did not clear the way for elections to move forward by November 5, there would not be enough time to run them. After the Supreme Court ruled on November 21, the state rushed into action anyway.

“Some employers didn’t post the required notice that the election would be taking place until the Friday the election began,” says John Wedge, director of WEAC’s Capital Area Uniserv North. And that was the Friday after Thanksgiving, when people were gone for the holiday.

The result was the kinds of errors you would expect from a hasty rollout of a complex process.

Most rank and file members voted by phone, keying in a voter ID code provided by the state. The codes were a combination of members' last names and the last four digits of their Social Security numbers. But when people typed their codes into telephone keypads, hundreds of duplicate ID codes emerged, thanks to the three letters on every telephone key.

Over 300 eligible voters had duplicate voter ID data. The WERC sent letters to half of those people around December 2, providing them with new ID data. But some of the people who got the letters had already voted, making a messy process even worse.

Then people in the other half of the pool began calling their union leaders, complaining that they had not been allowed to vote.

Other anecdotes from local union leadership around the state include members who repeatedly got a busy signal and could not get through to vote. Other voters got a recorded message informing them that they were voting in locals that do not actually employ them, and were confused about whether they should proceed.

Peter G. Davis acknowledged the problems, and said that he and the rest of the WERC staff "felt badly" about them.

"I can imagine their frustration," he said of the members who tried to vote and ran into the problems outlined above. In the end, though, he insisted that WERC was "confident everybody voted in the right election."

"If I'm a teacher in Racine and I'm told I'm voting in Rhinelander, actually my vote was recorded in Racine," Davis said. As for the hasty rollout: "Waiting would have created a new legal issue," he added.

But these kinds of problems, needless to say, do not inspire confidence that the state is serious about running fair elections.

“You shake your head and say, ‘Come on now. This is Wisconsin. This is America,’” Brey said.

Of the error-ridden recertification process, she added: “It’s just one more thing in a mountain of unfair practices and lopsided rules of the game in this administration.”

"We did have local associations who had significant problems," Brey said of the election outcome. "We will look at everything on a case-by-case basis, and we will decide what to do."

Get ready for more legal wrangling over Act 10.

Contrast the state's attitude toward the messed-up recertification process with its attitude toward the Affordable Care Act and problems with the sign-up on the federal web site. Walker refused to set up a state exchange, and state residents are having more problems signing up for exchanges that residents of states that did not take a stand against "Obamacare."

"How can you rely on a federal government that can't get a basic website up and going that they've spent all those millions of dollars on, years on?" Walker said recently. "It's not like this is some sidebar issue. This is their legacy and they can't get it up and working."

The same could be said of Walker's Act 10.

The difference is that, while the Affordable Care Act is an effort to expand access to health care, at its core Act 10 was always intended to kill off public employee unions. But the screw-ups in the election process also have implications beyond the very real problems of public employee unions.

Consider the new voter ID laws state Republicans are pushing: 
If they want people to believe that these new processes are anything other than an aggressive effort to shut down democracy, they will have to do a lot better than the Act 10 rollout.

Photo: AAraujo /