WILL Blog | What Would an Act 10 Repeal Look Like?

The following blog post was written by WILL Executive Vice President, CJ Szafir, and WILL’s Director of Public Engagement, Collin Roth.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Act 10 is the most widely discussed and debated piece of state legislation in a generation. Seven years after the contentious passage, the protests, and the recall elections, the landmark collective bargaining reforms are still a hot button issue. Among other things, the law curtailed collective bargaining, increased public employee contributions to pension and healthcare, ended employer collection of dues, and ended fair share fees from non-members.

State Superintendent Tony Evers is running for governor on a platform of repealing Act 10, Governor Walker’s historic collective bargaining reform law. However, while the line may draw applause at campaign rallies, Democrats are fooling themselves if they believe an Evers victory would turn back the clock in Wisconsin to 2010 when the public unions were strong.  Putting aside the incredibly small likelihood of Republican legislative leadership agreeing with Evers, the fiscal impact of repealing Act 10, coupled with the recent Janus Supreme Court decision makes a full repeal of Act 10 about as likely as Manny Machado being cheered at Miller Park on Friday.

First, many will recall that the law was sold as a policy toolbox for state and local governments to weather budget cuts without layoffs, tax hikes, or cuts to essential services. On that front, the law was extremely successful, netting $5 billion in taxpayer savings in the five years after enactment.  This was a result of, not only increased employee contributions but also new freedom for school districts to shop for different types of healthcare plans. Since Act 10, school districts have been free to shop for healthcare benefits and, according to the MacIver Institute, Wisconsin school districts have saved more than $3.2 billion as a result.

Under a full repeal of Act 10, presumably, the cost curve would surely bend upwards for local governments. Collective bargaining would return. Healthcare and pension contributions would likely be modified. Would the state allow school districts to lift the revenue caps and increase property taxes?  Or would the state increase taxes in order to increase spending on K-12 public schools?  The answer must be “yes” to one of these questions.

Complicating the matter is a recent U.S. Supreme Court case called Janus v. AFSCME. Last June, a majority of justices on the Supreme Court held that it was a violation of the First Amendment’s free speech clause for government to require non-union members to pay fair-share dues. Even if a Governor Evers could solve the fiscal issues of Act 10 repeal noted above, he must abide by Janus.

Since Act 10, public union membership in Wisconsin dropped by 64%, from 187,000 members to just 67,000. As of 2017 just 22% of the state’s public workforce were union members. If Act 10 were repealed, it is highly unlikely union membership would rebound to 2010 levels. For the vast majority of workers who left unions, the cost of being a union member (dues) will outweigh any additional value.

In fact, Michigan gives us a great example of this.  In 2013, the state passed right to work for public (and private) employees but did not reform collective bargaining.  Union membership declined. According to the Mackinac Center, in 2012, before right to work, there were 253,635 public employees and in 2017, the number of employees declined to 239,683. This occurred even though the economy was strong and the number of government workers remained roughly the same.

So what does all this mean?  The Janus decision closes the door on any return to a pre-Act 10 Wisconsin. And an Act 10 repeal, as unlikely as that might be, isn’t likely to lead to a strong union comeback in Wisconsin.

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