ROOT – Due to laws passed in 2011 under the then government. Scott Walker curtailing union rights, with the city making unilateral changes to health care benefits for employees and retirees at the end of 2019 appear legally justified, much to the dismay of union members and Racine retirees.
But a lawsuit against the changes is still months away from conclusion.
In the fall of 2019, City Hall – struggling financially and struggling to balance next year’s budget – made its healthcare plans more expensive. The change affected all employees, including retirees, both non-unionized and unionized within the police and fire departments.
Current and former employees protested at City Hall, but City Council approved the changes by one vote.
Within months, hundreds of retirees filed lawsuits against the city, seeking the restoration of their original benefits.
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After reviewing the case, even state arbitrator Raleigh Jones wrote that his initial reaction was, “The City can’t do this unilaterally; Surely this violates the contract! according to a court document filed March 18. But after reviewing the case, Jones ruled otherwise.
The city is now seeking to dismiss the lawsuit, which includes more than 300 plaintiffs. But there is no guarantee that the unions have lost the legal battle.
On March 18, after a hearing in which Local 321, the firefighters’ union, sought to have the arbitrator’s decision overturned, Racine County Circuit Court Judge Jon Fredrickson ruled against the union, raising grounds for appeal.
Four days later, a union filing said “plaintiffs oppose the city’s proposed ordinance” that would have their case thrown out.
The next hearing is scheduled for June 24 before Racine County Circuit Court Judge Eugene Gasiorkiewicz.
CLICK HERE to read a selection of documents associated with the lawsuit filed against the Town of Racine
Arbitration and Law 32
In a meeting on Nov. 4, 2019 — after the health care changes were approved by city council, but before they came into effect — according to a statement of facts from Jones, the arbitrator and a lawyer: “During At the meeting, union officials said they agreed the city had no legal obligation to negotiate with the union regarding design changes to the plan, following legal changes resulting from Bill 32 of the Wisconsin.
Wisconsin Bill 32 was the first two-year state budget passed under Governor Scott Walker in 2011, who along with Bill 10 crippled collective bargaining for public employees in Wisconsin.
Jones wrote: “On the same day (November 4, 2019), the union filed a complaint with the WERC (Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission, which provided the arbitrator) which alleged that the city had refused to negotiate with the union. on changes to health insurance. benefits, had unilaterally changed health insurance benefits for union members without first negotiating in good faith with the union, and that the changes to the affected health benefits are mandatory subjects for negotiation.
However, under state law, municipalities are prohibited from collective bargaining when it comes to health plans offered to unionized employees. Essentially, a municipal employer can improve or reduce health benefits as it sees fit and is not allowed to negotiate with the unions themselves unless direct employee contributions are adjusted.
Lawyers challenging the city’s decision on behalf of the plaintiffs allege the city violated its collective bargaining agreement by increasing “the share of employee premiums for the high-deductible plan to 7.5% versus 5% for active members and those who will retire under the CBA”. and capping “the Medicare Part B premium at $135.50.”
“Due to the city’s changes to retiree health insurance, I have spent far more funds on health insurance than I ever paid as a retiree,” wrote a retiree from the city. city in an affidavit. This sentiment was echoed by several other plaintiffs in affidavits, who also noted that many plaintiffs were living on fixed incomes as retirees and that reduced benefits put them in dire straits.
Both sides knew the health benefits being offered were less desirable when they were offered in 2019. Racine Mayor Cory Mason wrote that other cuts being considered to balance the 2020 budget would have been “worse.”
However, a filing by attorneys representing the city claimed “there are plaintiffs whose monthly premiums actually went down after the city changes.”
So even though the design of the employees’ health care plan was changed, since their direct premium contributions remained unchanged, collective bargaining was prohibited, Jones concluded.
In a document dated Aug. 27, 2019, the city said the “then-proposed changes to the design of the employee health insurance plan…would result in potential savings for 2020 of approximately $3,200,000.”
This $3.2 million represented a significant saving that helped balance the 2020 budget.
Mason said the city could have faced another budget crisis in 2022 had it not been for substantial public assistance from the federal government.
Among the signs carried by union members who turned protesters outside City Hall in September 2019 were statements such as “Hands off our insurance” and “Cut spending, not jobs.”
In photos: City workers call out to the mayor during a protest against economic changes to health care in September 2019