Friday, March 25, 2011

Worker rights coalition may fracture over residency

A mighty coalition came together to fight the Republican effort to weaken collective bargaining for public employees in Wisconsin. Now a Republican effort to void one result of collective bargaining in Milwaukee – the requirement that teachers and police officers live in the city – has the potential of driving a wedge through that coalition.

Bargaining rights for public employees enjoy widespread support among Milwaukee residents, but so does the residency rule for public employees – a rule some public-sector unions hate. Thus, as the proposal to do away with that rule sails through the Legislature, many Milwaukee residents will find themselves at odds with government workers the residents are now backing.

The residency rule is a vital self-help tool for cities, which find themselves assailed on all borders. An unspoken but real struggle over class and race has raged for untold decades in metropolitan America. The metro area is the organic whole. Suburbs are artificial communities that cropped up primarily to wall out poor people (and non-whites) while sucking in the wealth of cities. The result is that the hub city shoulders the metro area’s burden of poverty and its related ills with fewer and fewer resources. One resource the city does have is its own jobs. By reserving them for its own residents, the city fights poverty, boosts local commerce and stabilizes neighborhoods.

The residency requirement is a big reason why, as bad as poverty and unemployment are in Milwaukee, the city is not quite Detroit, whose decline sped up after the requirement was outlawed there.

Getting rid of the residency rule was long a top agenda item of Milwaukee teacher and police unions. They failed to reach that objective at the bargaining table or in court. So they resorted to political wheeling and dealing.

The Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, however, dropped that effort about 15 years ago, when the reform faction took over. One reform leader told me she personally backed the residency rule, but the union never took its repeal off its agenda; the union just stopped pushing repeal. Notably, MTEA President Mike Langyel has not voiced enthusiasm about the current repeal drive.

The Milwaukee Police Association never lost enthusiasm. The historically anti-black union, which gives aid and comfort to Republican politicians, has abstained from the coalition backing bargaining rights. In a transparent effort to reward the MPA, Gov. Scott Walker exempted police and fire unions from the bill to curb those rights, although several such unions have nonetheless joined the coalition.
After it started downplaying the residency rule, the MTEA became more community-friendly – doubtless one reason it enjoys broad residential support in its battle for bargaining rights. In contrast, the MPA is still widely perceived as hostile to the community.

Milwaukee residents recently rallied for the bargaining rights of public employees.
Gov. Scott Walker and other Republicans have tried to stoke resentment among taxpayers against public employees, saying they get the generous pay and benefits that average workers don’t enjoy. That rhetoric has thus far had only limited success. But lifting the residency rule could make the ground more fertile for such thinking in Milwaukee. Not only are municipal employees more generously paid than the average Milwaukee worker, but many don’t think enough of the city to live here. These suburbanites are taking away jobs that could go to city residents and our hard-earned taxes are supporting their comfortable lifestyles outside the city.

The racial implications of repealing the residency rule are obvious in a city whose suburbs are among the whitest in America. Also, the city’s decline, which repeal of the residency rule will accelerate, will hurt city employment in the long run due to a withering tax base. Public employee unions could and should head off fractures in the labor rights coalition by doing an about face and endorsing Milwaukee’s residency rule.

Further reading:
Why city needs residency rule”  by Gregory Stanford
 “The residency rule helps keep Milwaukee strong” by Milwaukee Common Council President Willie Hines
The Barrett Report” (3/18/11)  by Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett

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