Consensus Bargaining in Wisconsin State Government: A New Approach to Labor Negotiation

Article excerpt

Labor Management Background in Wisconsin

State Government is the largest and most diversified employer in Wisconsin - employing over 40,000 classified employees in more than 50 departments and agencies and the 26 University of Wisconsin campuses. Over 90 percent of the classified employees in State Government are represented by labor unions. These employees are organized into 19 statutorily-defined bargaining units represented by 6 parent labor organizations. The largest of these is the Wisconsin State Employees Union (WSEU), which represents about 27,000 employees. The WSEU is an affiliate of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.

During the last several years, Wisconsin State Government has established a national reputation for innovative personnel practices. In 1995, for example, the Wisconsin Department of Employment Relations (DER) received the IPMA Agency Award for Excellence, and the Department has also received awards and recognition from organizations such as the Ford Foundation, the National Association of State Personnel Executives, the National Center for Public Productivity, the Society for Human Resource Management, and others.

DER, the state's central personnel office, administers Wisconsin's human resource system to ensure that State Government services are provided by a skilled, motivated, and diverse work force. DER is committed to providing responsive service to its customers - state agencies, state employees, and the public. The Department's long-term vision is to:

* Be positioned at the forefront of human resources management by creating and administering a system that is based on excellence, diversity, efficiency, responsiveness, continual improvement, and innovation; and

* Encourage and enable state employees to achieve their highest potential.

A key element of DER's mission is to bargain collectively under the provisions of the Wisconsin State Employment Labor Relations Act with legally recognized labor organizations and administer labor contracts in good faith. Department staff serve as chief spokespersons during biennial contract negotiations, consulting frequently with legislative leaders on the Wisconsin Legislature's Joint Committee on Employment Relations (JCOER), which must approve all contract agreements. After JCOER approves contracts, they are forwarded to the full Senate and Assembly for approval, and then to the governor for final approval. Once signed, these labor contracts have the force of law for their two-year duration.

Since 1992, DER has been successfully using "consensus bargaining" to reach labor agreements with large state employee unions. That year, under the leadership of Governor Tommy G. Thompson, Wisconsin became the first state to successfully use this approach with a major union - the WSEU. This union represents six bargaining units - blue collar and non-building trades, administrative support, technical, security and public safety, law enforcement, and professional social services.

The state now negotiates contract agreements with the WSEU and several other unions using a consensus-based, problem-solving approach that is strongly supported by both union membership and state employer representatives. The consensus approach contrasts sharply with the traditional adversarial and confrontational approach to bargaining and has introduced a new era in bargaining for Wisconsin State Government, the WSEU, and other state employee unions. Since that first experience with consensus bargaining in 1992, DER and the WSEU have reached agreement on three other biennial contracts using the same approach, and the Department has used consensus bargaining to reach contract agreements with other unions, including the United Professionals for Quality Health Care (health care workers at the University of Wisconsin Hospital and correctional and other institutions) and the Wisconsin Federation of Teachers (the parent union for bargaining units that represent scientific and other professional employees in many different job classifications). …