MILWAUKEE (Reuters) - Major state employee unions covering tens of thousands of Wisconsin workers effectively lost their official status this week when union leaders chose not to seek recertification under a new law limiting collective bargaining.
Experts say the passing of Thursday's deadline for recertification not only weakens labor unions and their ability to bargain for wages and employee rights, but signals a dwindling influence for unions in Wisconsin, a key swing state for the 2012 election.
"I think the passing of the deadline was a major moment and now we can say, 'Welcome to the future Wisconsin,'" said Mordecai Lee, professor of governmental affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and former state legislator.
The state's largest unions did not try to meet the tough new standard for keeping their current status as laid out in Republican Gov. Scott Walker's union law.
After weeks of massive protests over the issue at the state Capitol, Walker signed legislation in March limiting bargaining for public employees. The law requires that unions hold annual recertification votes rather than retain that status indefinitely after an initial vote creating the union.
To win recertification, unions must get 51 percent of the vote of all members of their bargaining unit, not just from those who cast ballots. While unions can exist without that official status, government employers do not have to recognize them or bargain with them.
The new law also ends the practice of government employers collecting union dues from employees' paychecks. That is now considered voluntary, which raises the question of whether unions can remain financially viable.
At the close of business Thursday, six smaller state unions notified the state that they intend to keep their status by winning a difficult recertification vote.
Three smaller state unions representing building trades workers, prosecutors and other attorneys previously filed with the state seeking to keep their official status, said Jim Allen, chairman of the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission.
A fourth union representing a small number of state research employees filed Thursday, as did a unit representing more than 1,000 patient care employees at the University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics and a professional educators' union representing 650 employees, Allen said.
The law has the effect of weakening Democrats, who count on union support, leading to the 2012 election, Lee said.
"What this law did politically is it kicked one of the legs out from the Democratic Party," Lee said. "Organized labor is a major constituency and funder of the Democratic party, and money is the mother's milk of politics."
"A year from now, Wisconsin politics will be wholly different than it is now, because public unions will not have the influence they once did," he said.
Unions for teachers and other school district employees without contracts have until September 30 to file for a recertification election. Municipal employees without contracts have until January 30.
Christina Brey, spokesman for the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the umbrella state organization covering public school employees, said the decision on whether to recertify rests with more than 400 individual school districts across the state.
"The bottom line here in Wisconsin is that it's really a local decision," Brey said. "There are a lot of factors that weigh into it. There are tight timelines, and a cost component. There is a very limited role for employees as a result of this legislation."
Writing and reporting by John Rondy; Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Greg McCune