Wauwatosa residents came out in force to support or protest the ratification of union contracts. Photos by Patti Wenzel

Wauwatosa Mayor Jill Didier has vetoed the Common Council’s action of last night, stalling the labor contracts with the city’s clerical, dispatch and public works employees.

In a statement released before noon, Didier reiterated her position that the contracts had already failed to pass in March, and the vote last night was unnecessary.

“My objection is that this issue was fully vetted and all normal procedures were followed prior to the vote on the (sic) March 15, 2011.”

Alderman Donald Birschel said Didier told him on Monday that she would veto the measure if it passed, and that the closer the vote, the more resolved she would be to do so.

Didier also said the “decision to vote in favor of the ratification sets employee groups against one another. As the leader of this organization, I must strike a balance between the well-being of our workers, our responsibilities and expectations of the Wauwatosa community.”

The mayor has not returned calls requesting comment.

She had five days to make her decision, but chose to stop the process immediately. The Common Council can attempt to override the veto at its next meeting. It would take a two-thirds majority, or 11 members, to undo the veto.

What happened last night (posted 4:00 a.m. 4/20/11)

If Wauwatosa was a battle in the war over collective bargaining, score one for bargaining after Tuesday’s special common council meeting.

On a vote of 8-7, the Common Council approved the ratification of union contracts with the city’s clerical, public works and dispatch employees. This vote was a reversal of the 13-3 denial of the contracts on March 15.

There were no shouts of “shame” by the losing side, but one citizen said “See you at the recalls” as he left the room.

The meeting was well attended, with most arriving an hour before the 6:30 p.m. start. The council chambers and an overflow room held approximately 250 people and the hallways were teeming. The crowd was evenly split between those who wanted the council to uphold the March 15 vote and those who wanted contract ratification.

Union supporters sported bright pink stickers noting they “support fair contracts,” while those against held signs reading “Collective Bullying: Stop Union Bullies Now!” Most of the testimony was civil, but as the night wore on the audience became more vocal in response to speaker comments.

Some of those in favor of ratification spoke of respecting the city’s employees, the importance of collective bargaining, maintaining local control over budgeting decisions and rejecting the rhetoric of conservative AM-talkers Mark Belling and Charlie Sykes.

Nancy VanValkenburgh went right after Belling. “We know you voted against the contracts last month because Belling told you to. Well we have grassroots Tosa. We have no paper or radio station, but we care about Tosa. Don’t be intimidated by Belling, do what you should have done last time”

George Stone told the council there is no shame in reconsideration and reflection. He also referred to collective bargaining as a noble pursuit. “Bargaining gave us the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. You must be willing to listen to additional voices.”

But most asking for ratification cited the savings the city could realize if employees were contractually obligated to contribute more toward their pensions and health coverage. Figures released by Wauwatosa City Administrator James Archambo show the city could save $12,675 each week if the three unions made the bargained contributions; the savings grow to $20,625 per week when non-represented employees are added to the agreement.

In March, contract protesters asked the council to wait and see what would happen with Act 10. Since then, Archambo released his figures and the repair bill is now tied up in a legal battle before Dane County Circuit Court Judge Maryann Sumi. With legal resolution at least two months off, speakers said the savings from the contracts are a sure thing, as opposed to the proposed savings from the pending bill.

Alderwoman Linda Nikcevich (another petition signers) agreed that the savings demonstrated by Archambo were too much to pass up. “I have received no pressure from the unions to bring this up. This is being driven by the cost savings.”

Alderman Jeffery Roznowski said ratification was the only fiscally responsible thing to do, while McBride said Walker’s tools were incomplete.

“We’ve been given a hammer but no nails,” McBride said. “The only thing we can build with these tools is a budget hole.”

Many in attendance last night had testified in March and came to Tuesday’s meeting to implore the aldermen to not change their votes. Some said the issue had been vetted thoroughly last month and the vote should stand. Others questioned the principles and honor of those who were going to change their votes, even threatening recall efforts if they did so.

Chuck Mennet told the council to listen to the people and vote accordingly. He cited the recent Supreme Court election, where 19 of Wauwatosa’s 24 wards voted for Justice David Prosser. In a campaign that included third-party advertising equating Prosser with Walker and JoAnne Kloppenburg with the public unions, Mennet said it is obvious that Wauwatosa’s residents are on Walker’s side.

“That vote should have told you we’re done with all the spending,” he said.

Others wanted the council to vote no on the contracts to free themselves from the “handcuffs” of collective bargaining. They spoke of adopting a new way of thinking about the employer/employee relationship, using the new paradigm of economic thought and making use of Walker’s tools. They were all convinced in their belief that the city could get more savings under the repair bill measures than what Archambo was promising.

And Jen Kraft’s sentiments mirrored many in the crowd who wanted the contracts blocked.

“I am the employer of these unions,” she said. “I am not an extremist and I am not happy to pay more. I have no more to give.”

Alderwoman Jacqueline Jay said the savings from the union concessions are small. She added that by not waiting for the budget repair bill, the city would be losing out on savings from changes to sick pay, vacations, work rules and even bidding out jobs. “If we lock ourselves in, we won’t be able to take advantage of those areas.”

Jay also noted if the city is tied to a two-year contract, and revenues drop, the only solutions would be to raise taxes (which are disallowed under Walker’s budget proposal) or laying off employees.

Alderwoman Cheryl Berdan (an employee in Walker’s Milwaukee office) objected to the second vote, saying it would set a precedent that any vote could be redone if it didn’t turn out to somebody’s liking.  She asked her colleagues to look at who would benefit from the ratification of the contracts – union bosses.

She said taxpayers don’t benefit, since the money for the city’s portion of  the benefit payments were already budgeted and levied, while the restrictions of a contract will force service cuts and layoffs which negatively affect citizens. She said non-represented employees don’t benefit because the health and pension contributions are the same under the budget repair bill or contract. Union members don’t benefit under the contract for similar reasons as their non-union colleagues, and they are punished by having to pay mandatory union dues.

From Archambo’s figures, if the police and fire unions made the same contributions as other union employees, the city could see close to $1 million in savings. “Even if we get half of that, it’s still $500,000,” Alderman Eric Meaux said. “These are real savings and a legitimate fiduciary reason to bring back the contract discussion and vote.”

But after all the other aldermen had a chance to speak, Meaux took a U-Turn. He announced he would not support the contract ratification, again going to the outstanding police and fire contracts. He spoke of employee benefit parity and the only way that could be achieved between the various unions was to essentially pit them against each other.

“We need to force the issue of parity,” Meaux said. “As we see more of the budget go to protective services it will build pressure for that parity. We could agree to a short-term fix to get a comparable, but we need to look beyond. We need to get benefit parity.”

Two aldermen -Birschel and Meaux – had originally signed the petition for the re-vote, but reversed their position at vote time. Birschel said his vote was dependent on one person – an anonymous friend who has a close connection with someone in the Walker administration. He said they spoke numerous times in the past few days, and that this mystery person convinced him that the budget repair bill would yield more savings than the city’s proposed contracts.

Meaux initially said the contracts were needed for the benefit savings and for internal comparable agreements used in upcoming arbitration hearings with the police and fire unions. Without contracts in place, an arbitrator would be forced to look to other cities for comparable compensation and benefits for police and fire fighters.

Aldermen who voted to ratify the contracts were Kathleen Causier, Tim Hanson, Bobby Pantuso, Jason Wilke, Craig Wilson, Nikcevich, McBride and Roznowski.

Aldermen voting against the ratification were Peter Donegan, Michael Walsh, Brian Ewerdt, Jay, Meaux, Berdan and Birschel.

Alderwoman Jill Organ did not attend the meeting.

Didier could veto the decision of the council, which would lead to an override vote. Eleven votes are needed to override the mayoral veto. Didier did not exercise her veto at the end of the special meeting, but she did open the meeting expressing her dismay at the second vote on the contracts, saying the March 15 meeting allowed for proper comment and vetting on the issue.

But shortly after the March vote,  McBride and four colleagues signed a petition requesting a special meeting to discuss the issues again. The city has an ordinance in place that allows for this aldermanic petition. Birschel originally sent a letter to Didier requesting the issue be placed on a future council agenda; she denied the request because it did not follow the procedure for a vote of reconsideration.

Birschel is facing an open meetings violation charged filed with the Government Accountability Board regarding that letter.

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