Wis. public employees reconsider their careers after union rights defeat

Protestors yell
Protesters yell outside the Assembly Chamber as members of the Wisconsin State Assembly debated provisions of the state's budget repair bill March 10, 2011 in Madison, Wis.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Jason Lund worked for years at breakfast joint in Dinkytown before finally finding a career he loved: teaching.

Lund ended up moving to Wisconsin to teach art at Hudson High School. He's been there for 13 years but said he's considering a career change after Republican lawmakers passed a new law ending most collective bargaining rights for teachers and other public employees.

"I love what I do," said Lund, an active union member. "I can't imagine doing anything else, but right now I'm looking for other jobs in other places."

Lund has been through tough contract negotiations, seen his wages and benefits cut and even been laid off in the past. But for him, losing collective bargaining power was the last straw. It left him feeling demoralized.

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"Why would I want to do this anymore?" he asked Friday, as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed the collective bargaining restrictions into law. "It's come to the point where it's just not worth it."

Across the state, other public workers are asking whether it makes sense to stick with their careers. Jobs in the public sector traditionally offer better benefits and job security but lower wages. For many, benefits were more important.

Besides taking away nearly all collective bargaining rights, the law requires public workers to pay more toward their pensions and health insurance coverage, amounting to an 8 percent pay cut for the average worker.

The changes make public sector jobs look less appealing, workers said.

"Our wages haven't matched up to the private sector because our benefits have always been so much better," said Amelia Erbs, a toxicologist at the University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics in Madison. "But when the wages are still not as good [as the private sector] and when they begin to cut our benefits ... it's not a good situation. So I am already beginning to look for work in the private sector."

Erbs said she likely wouldn't have the same job security in a non-unionized position, but she said the legislation on collective bargaining would make it hard for her small union, the Wisconsin Science Professionals, to survive.

"It's going to cause a very tense and uncertain situation," Erbs said.

Ann Lininger, a public librarian in Racine, said in addition to the pay cut, librarians across the state could face layoffs as a result of budget cuts to public libraries.

For now, though, Lininger said she's concerned about health insurance rates going up. Her husband and daughter are both on her health insurance, which currently costs the family $74 a month. Lininger said she doesn't know how much it will go up but said it will hurt her family's bottom line.

"We still have bills to pay, we still have to pay for our daughter's day care, and we're going to have to do more with less," she said.

The whole situation has left Lininger feeling underappreciated.

"We chose to be in public service," she said. "We chose to take a job that would pay less to serve other people, and now we're being penalized for that."

Steven Shea, who teaches at Milwaukee Area Technical College, is also concerned about his job. But he said he's still hopeful the restrictions on bargaining rights can be overturned.

"For the time being we're going to fight back," said Shea, who has attended protests almost every day and plans to protest in Madison on Saturday. "I'm very hopeful that [Gov. Scott] Walker] will be voted out."

Lund, the Hudson art teacher, said the debate over the legislation has refueled public employees' interest in unions. But he's concerned that will be short-lived, and that people will start pursuing jobs in other states or leave public service altogether as they feel the effects of the new law.

"Who's going to want to be a prison guard? Who's going to want to be a custodian, or a teacher?" he asked. "Who's going to want to take on this job when there's this much uncertainty?"

(Dunbar interviewed Lund, Erbs, Lininger and Shea through MPR's Public Insight Network.)