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The “living wage” ordinance may have passed the Milwaukee County Board just last week, but that didn’t stop the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) from using the newly minted mandate to strong arm a local contractor in December.

Sally Sprenger runs Supportive Home Care Options Inc, a firm that contracts with the County’s Family Care program, which helps elderly and disabled populations.

In a phone interview, Sprenger said SEIU guaranteed her an exemption from paying the County’s wage hike if she agreed to deduct union dues from all of her employees’ paychecks.

Sprenger's situation adds to the mounting evidence that the "living wage" law is mainly designed to boost union coffers, not help low-income workers.

According to Sprenger, Bonnie Strauss, a project manager for SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin, pitched the dues-for-exemption proposal to her and Art Beck (her lawyer), on December 16, 2013. The Red Fox blog could not reach Strauss for comment.

Supportive Home Care Options has more than 1,150 employees, but only 317 of them pay union dues. If Sprenger agreed to the payroll deductions, or what SEIU calls “union security,” she estimates it would generate an additional $300,000 a year in new revenue for SEIU.

That’s quite the payday. How is SEIU able to make such demands? They can thank the County Board.

A provision in the County living wage ordinance specifies that companies doing contracting or subcontracting work with the County are required to pay their employees a minimum wage of $11.32 an hour or 100% of the federal poverty rate for a family of four; but there is a big catch. The ordinance specifies that companies that have collective bargaining agreements may be exempted.

“It’s a windfall for the unions,” Sprenger said. “We’re about to be priced out of business and County Board Supervisors never asked us any questions.”

That’s probably because Supervisors didn’t write the bill.

“SEIU told me they wrote the living wage ordinance and that they singled out only the companies they represented," Spranger said. "After it passed, they said they were going back to the County Board to include all of Aging, Disability, Behavioral and Mental health providers in the County."

Supervisor Jim “Luigi” Schmitt told the Red Fox blog in December that SEIU worked on 16 different drafts on the living wage ordinance in collaboration with Supervisor David Bowen.

Peter Rickman, an operative for SEIU, prepared the County Board’s Finance committee members with living wage talking points for their public hearing and a point-by-point rebuttal by SEIU lawyers in Washington DC to a legal memo furnished by Milwaukee County’s Corporation Counsel.

Sprenger may object to her employee’s losing the choice to pay union dues voluntarily, but she also has to wrangle with the possibility of losing her Family Care contract with the County.

“I can see myself being told that our contract will be ending in two or three years because we will have priced ourselves out of competition,” Sprenger said.

But Sprenger and other Family Care providers seem to have a new fighter in their corner. Representative Chris Kapenga, a young politician quickly developing a no nonsense reputation in the legislature, is proposing a bill (AB750) that would preempt local units of government from attaching living wage rates to workers in programs that receive any state or federal money.

Sup. Bowen denounced the proposal as a “slap in the face” of local control. Kapenga retorted that he's all for local control as long as it’s paid for by the locals.

“Once you start taking other people’s money to pay for it [the living wage], those people should have a say in how it is spent,” Kapenga said.

The Family Care program is funded largely by the state. According to a fiscal report by the County Comptroller, the County’s “living wage” ordinance would burn through the program’s reserves by 2019.

In a previous fiscal statement, County Comptroller Scott Manske said the program risks being shut down if the Family Care reserve is depleted. “The current trend by the state has been to terminate insolvent programs,” Manske concluded in December.

Kapenga’s bill – which has been scheduled for a hearing at the Capitol today – has Voces de la Frontera and Wisconsin Jobs Now worked up into a frenzy.

“All hands on deck! Alec and the GOP are trying to make all living wage laws in Wisconsin illegal,” Voces said on their Facebook page. Wisconsin Jobs Now calls it a “direct attack on democracy.”

Whether it’s an attack on democracy remains to be seen. It’s far more likely to be an attack on SEIU’s new revenue-making scheme. It pays to write the living wage ordinance, literally.


Wisconsin - Milwaukee County

It appears that the Milwaukee County Supervisors elected a new member of the Board, but forgot to tell anyone else about it. Peter Rickman, a lead operative for SEIU, played an even greater role in the Board’s recent move to hike the minimum wage than previously known.

Not only did Rickman oversee 16 different drafts on the County’s "living wage" ordinance, but according to open records requests obtained by the Red Fox blog, he provided Supervisors with their talking points and legal opinions as well.

Shortly after the County Comptroller issued a gloomy report on the projected effects of the living wage ordinance, County Executive Chris Abele sent an email to Supervisors urging them to hold public hearings on the matter. Just six minutes after Abele had sent the email, Supervisor Theo Lipscomb fast-forwarded it to Rickman for review.

Abele’s email wasn’t the only thing shared with Rickman. Open records requests show that SEIU lawyers issued a point-by-point rebuttal to the County’s legal opinion of the ordinance. SEIU’s response was emailed to County Supervisors just two days after the legal memo was first given to Supervisors David Bowen and Marina Dimitrijevic upon request.

What’s unclear is how SEIU got the legal memo in the first place. Open records requests for that same time period turned up no messages relayed by Supervisors to SEIU, or to anyone else for that matter. Brendan Conway, Spokesperson for County Executive Chris Abele, says their office didn’t receive the legal memo, let alone send it off to SEIU for a critique.

When asked whether it’s common practice for Supervisors to release confidential information to outside legal teams, Conway said it is his understanding that such a move requires approval by a majority of the County Board.

But this is news to Supervisor Deanna Alexander, who said she wasn’t approached by any members of the County Board about waiving their attorney-client privilege. “Clearly, the SEIU got it from someone,” Alexander said, “and it wouldn’t have been our attorneys.”

Of course, it wouldn’t be the first time that a County Supervisor had intentionally withheld emails. Sometimes Supervisors need a refresher course on what constitutes an open record.

SEIU has been pulling the Board’s strings for a while. They wrote the minimum wage ordinance, issued “general messaging” for the Board's Finance, Personnel, and Audit Committee, and furnished Supervisors with legal advice.

At each stage of the process -- from drafting to legal instruction -- Rickman has become the 19th member of the County Board. In return, those companies that decide to collectively bargain with unions, they get special exemptions from the wage hike. Sounds like a pretty good deal if you're a union looking for more members.

Wisconsin - Milwaukee County

Today, the Journal Sentinel editorial board issued a critical opinion of Governor Walker’s State of the State address. In their estimation, the economic growth under Walker’s watch has precious little to do with his policies, and the tiny role he has to play as governor in the massive vortices of the state’s economy is being squandered by his preference for election politics.

We have a surplus, they argued. More money needs to be spent on poverty and education programs.

Conversations about investing more money in education are always tricky. Clearly, a quality education is the foundation and starting point for a civically engaged and economically productive society. You want good citizens? Improve education. You want skilled workers? Improve education. You want innovative thinkers? Improve education so their impressionable minds have room to grow.

On the flipside, taxpayers aren’t a personal ATM for politicians to throw money at a problem mindlessly. Taxpayers don’t want to hear about how more money is needed for education while public schools continue to flounder at graduating students and preparing them for college. They want politicians to replicate models that work, not pay more for the same results.

We need to think outside the box and provide alternatives for hardworking parents who live in underperforming school districts. We need to reward successful schools -- private and public alike – with opportunities to compete for tuition dollars. Politicians are more interested in preserving government institutions than they are at helping children in struggling communities. When it comes to education, one size does not always fit all. Thus, saying more money should be invested in education doesn't mean much without a specific plan.

Also, I found myself disagreeing with the editorial's commentary on public sector unions. They believe that Walker neutered public sector unions as political “payback.”

A good question to ask is, payback for what? Perhaps it was payback for years of forcibly extracting union dues from workers, despite their own political preferences, to finance just one political party. Approximately 90-98% of all public sector labor contributions given to political candidates go to Democrats.

Personally, I don’t believe Walker signed Act 10 to shut off big labor’s funding pipeline to Democrats. The primary impetus for Act 10 was giving local governments more flexibility (tools) to manage their affairs; turning off the spigot for Democrats was just an added benefit.

You see, Walker experienced firsthand the influence of public sector unions. Despite a pension scandal in 2002 that rocked Milwaukee County, at no point in time did AFSCME Council 48, the union representing Milwaukee County employees, recognize a need to make concessions.

As County Executive, Walker essentially had two choices during budget time: raise taxes on a financially strapped constituency or furlough county employees. The vast bulk of the county budget – consisting of healthcare costs and unfunded pension liabilities – was essentially nonnegotiable.

The Journal-Sentinel editorial board also pointed out that it was unnecessary for Walker to eviscerate public sector unions to achieve his policy goals.

I am curious to hear how the JS Editorial Board would have done it differently. If elected governor for a term, would they have let unions retain their ability to bargain over healthcare and pension costs? How do you keep public sector unions whole while also giving local governments the tools to manage their budgets with an eye toward the taxpayer?

I’m all ears. Read more from Journal Sentinel: Follow us: @JournalSentinel on Twitter

Wisconsin - Scott Walker