Friday, October 11, 2013

Abele's War On Workers

It's no deep, dark secret that Chris Abele, the Mitt Romney of Milwaukee County, has no respect for workers.  This was made plainly clear when he sided against the workers at Palermo's Pizza despite the illegal labor actions and the extremely unsafe working conditions.  It was further evidenced when he fought against workers at a hotel being built on the county grounds get paid more than poverty wages.

But it is the county workers whom he despises more than any other.  And his current attack on county workers is enough to bring a tear of pride and joy to Scott Walker's eye.

Currently, he is making county workers pay 25% into their health care premium.  That is twice the level of what Scott Walker is doing to state workers.  In fact, it is the highest level being paid by any governmental entity and by almost all private sector workers in the nation.

But that isn't enough for Abele. He wants workers to pay even more:
Milwaukee County employees and retirees would pay nearly $6 million more toward health benefits, driving their share of health care costs to almost 29%, under County Executive Chris Abele's proposed 2014 budget.

The change helps to moderate the yearly rise in employee health costs for taxpayers and passes them along to employees, as county budgets over the past two years have done, according to a County Board staff analysis released Monday.

Abele has defended the move, saying he was passing along market-driven increases in health costs to employees and making progress on driving down the county's structural deficit — the built-in imbalance between costs and money to pay for them.

"The county executive's budget is focused on what's fair to Milwaukee County" taxpayers and employees, Abele spokesman Brendan Conway said.

The net impact of the health care and other benefit cost increases after taking into account a proposed pay increase of 2% will be a pay cut of $1,463 to $3,695 for county workers next year, according to the report.

The boost in employee health costs, through higher premiums, deductibles and copayments, would outstrip the proposed raises for employees by up to 7%, the analysis said.

"Proposed changes to pay and benefits could reduce, on average, employee compensation by approximately 3% to more than 7% in 2014," the report said.


Part of the health care increase to employees proposed by Abele includes abolishing a county stipend of up to $1,800 for a health care flexible savings account.

That's a big hit, said Boyd McCamish, executive director of District Council 48 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

The union once represented the bulk of the county's 4,400 workers, before the 2011 state law that took away most public employee collective bargaining.

McCamish called the benefit cost increases to workers "mean-spirited." He also faulted Abele's administration for cutting a poor deal with the county's health insurance administrator.

Abele's budget also calls for consideration of ending the county health insurance program and instead providing a stipend for employees to use in purchasing their own coverage through the insurance exchanges starting next year under the federal Affordable Care Act.
The funny thing is that there is really no way of telling what the cost of healthcare is going to be next year. Many states are reporting a drop of 10% in their health care costs because of the Affordable Care Act.

The other thing to remember is that there is good cause to be suspicious of Abele's numbers anyway. Heck, I would suspect that even his allegations of a deficit to be as fabricated as his personality. It's been known to happen that the county executive would pull number out of thin air to justify their punitive and petty actions against workers.

If Abele was really concerned about saving money on healthcare benefits, he would have done as was recommended to him a few years ago and setting up a buyers' bloc by cooperating with the nineteen municipalities in Milwaukee County and with surrounding communities in order to get much lower rates.  But then again, Abele's agenda really has nothing to do with helping the taxpayers, much less the workers.

I would also need to point out that, just as we have learned from Act 10, taking money out of circulation isn't going to help the regional economy one iota.  AFSCME District Council 48 (to which I am a member) saw this coming and issued a press release last week, which the local media somehow conveniently missed. I reproduce it here:

County Executive's Budget Proposal On Employee Health Insurance Continues To Undermine Local Economy

Threatening to short-circuit potential savings that could come from implementation of the Affordable Care Act, County Executive Abele's attempt to again balance his budget on the backs of county works is a stark reminder of his misguided financial stewardship of the county's treasury.

Citing market driven increases, Abele's budget undercuts take home pay for Milwaukee County employees by shifting another $6.6 Million in additional health care costs to county employees.  This comes on top of the $8 million plus extracted from workers' paychecks last year.

"The county executive is taking a page from Scott Walker's playbook.  He apparently hasn't noticed that Walker's policies have put Wisconsin at the back of the pack in job growth", said Monica Hogans, a CNA at the county's Behavioral Health Division and a member of AFSCME Local 170.

"Hourly workers put most of what we make right back into the local economy.  Constantly shrinking our paychecks is not only unfair, it's economic suicide for the community," Hogans said.

Abele has stated that he is open to allowing county employees to access the health care exchanges of the Affordable Care Act in 2014 if the quality of care is as good as or better than the care received under the current program and if it is less expensive.

"Instead of actually exploring what savings might be realized through the ACA, Abele's first instinct is to punish workers and ask questions later. It's shortsighted and it hurts our local economy," said Lynette Clarke, a BHD legal social worker and Local 645 member.

AFSCME is calling on the County Executive to freeze all proposed health care increases for six months until the impact of the ACA is better understood. Currently, the vast majority of analysis shows that the law will provide price relief for health care for all Americans.
It's not only with the health care that Abele wants to put the screws to the workers. He also wants to go after their pensions by making them pay more towards it:
Employees also will pay, on average, an extra $587 toward pensions, as their portion rises from 4.4% to 5.1% of salaries to cover half the overall pension cost.
And to add insult to injury, Abele would also like to take a third crack at taking away the pension altogether and replacing it with a Wall Street/Big Banking-friendly 401K. He claims that this would save money, but the educated people know this to be a falsehood:
Worries about retirement security abound. Families fear that they won’t have enough to support an adequate retirement income as home values and financial markets plummet. Dwindling profit margins have employers looking to cut costs.

And governments are concerned about delivering on the promises that they have made to their citizens and to their employees as tax revenues shrink amid a weakening economy. In this environment, some have proposed replacing traditional defined benefit (DB) pensions with 401(k)-type defined contribution (DC) retirement savings plans in an effort to save money.

But decision-makers would be wise to look before they leap. To deliver the same level of retirement benefits, a DB plan can do the job at almost half the cost of a DC plan. Hence, DB plans should remain an integral part of retirement income security in an increasingly uncertain world because they offer employers and employees the best bang for the buck.
I would also point out that this appears to be as phony as the rest of the Abelemath.

The pension fund has gained the same levels it had before the start of the Bush/Cheney Great Recession. The only reason that the county has to pay as much as they do into the pension fund now is due to the shaky pension obligation bonds, which Abele had pushed for Scott Walker and the County Board into taking out.

I would also like Abele to explain why there needs to be more money into a fund that is paying out to less people. Where are all those extra millions of dollars meant to go since they're not going to the workers?

But as with all things Abele, there is more.  There is always more.

It is not just the workers' take home pay or their pensions that Abele is attacking.

He is also attacking their rights as workers, even trying to manipulate the civil service code to do so.

After Scott Walker dropped his Act 10 bomb on the state, AFSCME realized what a mess it was going to create.  In order to maintain consistency, fairness and efficiency, the union worked with Abele and the County Board to have County Ordinance Chapter 17 put in place, which for all general purposes, codified the parts of the union contract.

This law covers all the basic things like seniority; layoff rights; vacations; sick time; personal time; bumping rights; overtime policies; etc.

The Board passed the resolution and Abele willingly signed it into law.

But now Abele wants to renege on this.  He wants to repeal the law so that he can take away vacation time, personal time and minor holidays.  In its place, he wants to install a punitive PTO system which would greatly reduce these time-honored benefits.

Abele also wants this law - again, which he signed into being - so that he can lay off who he wants, when he wants for whatever he reason he wants.  He also wants to manipulate it so that laid off workers cannot move into vacant positions or bump other workers.

In other words, Abele wants Milwaukee County to become a right to work county, as least as far as county workers are concerned.

So why does Abele want to be so draconian to the workers?

His official reason involves spouting out some sketchy numbers and making dubious claims of massive deficits.  But he's been proven a liar more often than not when it comes to his claims.

The real reason he is attacking the workers, especially the unionized ones, is one that I've cited numerous times here and elsewhere, which is really a quote from Thomas Donahue:  "The only effective answer to organized greed is organized labor."

And one thing history has taught us, including the lessons of the Bay View Massacre, is that the people will always be more powerful than the plutocracy, as long as we all stand together.

ADDENDUM: The really stupefying thing is that after Abele attacks workers like this, he is dumbfounded why staff turnover is at such high levels and why it's so difficult to hire new people.  Honest.  The man is that clueless.

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