Wisconsin Pro-Workers Rally

Wisconsin Pro-Workers Rally

Small Disagreement Suggests Deep Dispute over Role of Unemployment Insurance Advisory Council

The Wisconsin State Assembly passed a bill Wednesday to approve a bipartisan idea, but in the process rekindled debate about respect for collective bargaining.  What made the debate interesting and significant is that it could have been avoided by simply passing the version of the bill approved by the Unemployment Insurance (UI) Advisory Council, with the full support of the labor and business groups on that advisory body.

The substantive merits of the debate, which concerned only a small part of the bill, are far less important than the procedural matter of whether the Legislature decides this session to depart from the long practice of deferring to the recommendations of the UI Advisory Council.  The Council uses a consensus process that provides stability to the state laws relating to unemployment benefits and taxes.  Both the labor and business groups prefer that stability to the erratic swings in the UI system that could occur if the law is changed significantly every time control of the legislature changes hands.

The bill in question, Assembly Bill 15, helps employers to temporarily downsize without being forced to discharge employees.  It takes advantage of a change in federal law relating to unemployment insurance, which promotes work sharing by allowing employees whose hours have been cut to receive partial unemployment benefits (with the approval of the employer).  It’s an option that may appeal to businesses experiencing a short-term reduction in market demand, since it enables them to retain skilled employees, thereby avoiding the time and expense of searching for and retraining new workers after demand recovers.

Senator Julie Lassa has been pushing this idea for at least a year, and she took her draft legislation to the UI Advisory Council, which endorsed it.  Lassa’s bill, like the legislation in nearly all of the 25 states that have authorized this form of work sharing, would have required union representatives (if any) to approve the work share plan.  However, rather than wait for that bill to make its way through the legislative process, Assembly GOP leaders quickly advanced AB 15, which omitted the part of the bill giving unions a small role in approving the employer plans for the workers.  (The GOP author of AB 15, Rep. Brooks, says that provision is redundant.)

The backdrop for Wednesday’s debate is that the Walker Administration and a number of GOP legislators have proposed sweeping changes in the unemployment insurance system, and they don’t want the labor members of the Advisory Council to be able to block those proposals.  The Assembly vote on AB 15 is a warning to the Council, and particularly to the labor members, that they shouldn’t attempt to stop or water down the proposed changes, or else the Council role will soon become irrelevant.  But that also puts the business representatives on the Council in a very awkward position.  Although they support the proposed changes backed by the Governor, they are very fearful about the long-term consequences of undermining or eliminating the Council’s role in UI policymaking.

Amendments relating to the disputed portion of AB 15 were tabled on straight party-line votes.  The final motion for passage was approved by a vote of 74-22, and AB 15 now goes to the Senate for consideration.  Although I think the Senate will be somewhat more receptive to the arguments for passing the version of the bill recommended by the Advisory Council, I can’t predict what the outcome will be in that chamber of the Legislature.

Read more in this WUWM story by LaToya Dennis.

Jon  Peacock

Photo from WxMom licensed under Creative Commons