Remember the nonstop outrage over the Affordable Care Act? Opponents of Obamacare spent weeks shouting that the whole health-care expansion was clearly a failure because of glitches in the website when people tried to sign up.
Obamacare critics, meet the Act 10 rollout in Wisconsin.
The problems with signing up for health insurance on the federal exchanges is nothing compared to what happened with the union recertification elections required by Act 10, which concluded on Dec. 19 across the state. All over Wisconsin, school district and municipal employees have been rushing to vote in elections that will determine whether these unions continue to be recognized by the state as the certified bargaining representatives for employees.
Under Act 10, public employee unions have to hold these elections each year. And not only do they have to win a majority of the vote, they have to garner "yes" votes from 51% 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 could survive this standard. Imagine, in a spring election with 20% to 30% 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, on a highly compressed timeline.
While Act 10 was tied up in court, Peter G. Davis of the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission (WERC) warned in an affidavit that if the courts didn't clear the way for elections to move forward by Nov. 5 there would not be enough time to run them. But after the Supreme Court ruled on Nov. 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 of the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC). And that was the Friday after Thanksgiving, when people were gone for the holiday.
Union officials hasten to point out that unions will still exist even if they don't recertify. That's because the governor and the Legislature cannot take away the fundamental right to maintain a union. Many local unions around Wisconsin refused to take part in recertification and are foregoing state recognition. After all, even if they do recertify, Act 10 limits their bargaining rights to the extremely narrow issue of "base wages" and cost-of-living adjustments. But many local unions took part in recertification elections in the hope that a strong win would send a message to employers and the governor.
It will be hard to make sense of the election results, since they are rife with 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. 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 Dec. 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. Some voters got recorded messages informing them that they were voting in locals that do not actually employ them, and were confused about whether they should proceed.
WERC straightened out the problems as the process went along. For example, the state commission assured union leadership that the votes cast where the local union was misidentified would, in fact, count. 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,'" says WEAC spokeswoman Christina Brey.
Of the error-ridden recertification process, she says, "It's just one more thing in a mountain of unfair practices and lopsided rules of the game in this administration."
At its core, Act 10 was always intended to kill off public employee unions. But these anti-democratic election processes 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.
Ruth Conniff is the editor of The Progressive.