Jones: "This seems really hasty to me."
The commission, which was modeled on the National Labor Relations Board, mediates labor disputes and hears grievances for public sector unions.
In the past, if a municipality, school board or state agency couldn't come to an agreement with a union, the commission would help out.
"We would handle unfair labor practice charges coming out of any municipal or school district employer," says James Scott, chairman of the commission. "We handle grievance arbitration. We'd do mediation of collective bargaining disputes."
But Scott adds, "that's all gone." The reason is Act 10, which eliminated many collective bargaining rights for public sector workers when it passed two years ago.
"We've had a big drop in our caseload here," Scott says. "We handled a lot of arbitrations, and now we don't handle any."
The commission is authorized for 18 attorneys, but currently only employs 11. If the Legislature approves Walker's budget, the staff would be reduced to five attorneys by October, Scott says.
In the early 2000s, the commission handled an average of about 700 cases a year. In fiscal year 2011-12, it handled about 600 cases. But that figure is misleading, Scott says, because much of last year's work involved union recertifications, as required in Act 10.
"Elections take hardly any time. One clerical person does the election," Scott says. "It's a clerical function, not a lawyer function."
The "true caseload" for the commission last year was closer to 300 cases, Scott says, less than half of what it used to handle.
William Powell Jones, a UW-Madison history professor with an expertise on labor relations, says he's disappointed by the cuts.
"This seems really hasty to me," Jones says. "I think it indicates an eagerness to get beyond dealing with any employment grievances in a fair and reasonable matter. That's the purpose of this commission. It's supposed to be a neutral force."
Changes at the commission also have implications for private-sector unions, because it can help mediate labor disputes in the private sector. In recent years, that's been a small part of the commission's workload, Scott says: "We probably get 20 to 25 private-sector cases a year. That's literally a drop in the bucket."
Walker's move mirrors a national trend in labor relations, Jones says. The National Labor Relations Board has had its staff severely reduced in recent decades by administrations hostile to labor, creating as much as a 10-year delay in getting cases heard, he says.
"These are bodies that were set up to handle employment disputes," Jones says. "Nationally, we've seen a pattern of it getting harder to bring cases before boards like this."
He says the Walker administration has missed an opportunity to set up a system where workers could take grievances, with or without union representation.
One well-known Madison figure, Stu Levitan, who is chairman of Madison's Landmarks Commission, a radio host and an Isthmus contributor, will likely be a victim of the layoffs. Levitan, who has worked for the commission for almost 26 years, says, "My understanding is I have sufficient seniority that I am above the [layoff] line, but my intent is to allow myself to get laid off so someone else can save their job.
"It's been a great run, but it'll be great to go back into media full time," he adds. "There's a lot of things I've been wanting to say that I've been holding my breath on because I've been a state employee."
[Editor's note: This report was corrected to note that the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission was modeled on the National Labor Relations Board.]