Wisconsin Judge Restores Stripped Worker Rights
A judge in Wisconsin has restored collective bargaining rights to Wisconsin’s public sector employees, ruling that a law signed by Gov. Scott Walker last year limiting union power is unconstitutional.
The 2011 law stripped the right of public sector unions to collectively bargain for anything besides wage increases, which could be no greater than the cost of inflation. Residents were outraged enough to force a recall vote on Walker, but he survived a June poll with 54 percent of voters against removing him from office.
However, his controversial law has now been tossed on the trash heap. Judge Juan Colas ruled earlier this month that parts of the law “single out and encumber the rights of those employees who choose union membership and representation solely because of that association and therefore infringe upon the rights of free speech and association guaranteed by both the Wisconsin and United States Constitutions.”
“The consequences for Wisconsin municipal employees are huge,” says Nola J. Hitchcock Cross, a labor and employment attorney in Milwaukee. “Their right to collectively bargain for all matters related to wages, hours, and working conditions, has been restored and their collective bargaining agreements remain in place, depending upon their terms. At stake were contractual ‘just cause’ provisions preventing arbitrary and capricious discipline and termination, seniority, work rules, various pay provisions such as uniform allowance, shift differential, and the grievance and arbitration procedures to police the contracts.”
Every public worker in the state with the exception of law enforcement was affected by the law.
Nowhere did Walker’s law actually state that employees couldn’t exercise free speech or congregate. However, the judge saw restrictions on speech as the outcome of what was written in the legislation.
According to the Constitution, citizens are supposed to receive equal protection under the law, but Walker’s legislation didn’t meet that bar. “[The judge] stated the test as requiring a showing that ‘the statute treats members of a similarly situated class differently,’” the attorney says, “and he found that Act 10 creates distinct classes: general municipal employees represented by a union and those who are not.”
The judge also found that Wisconsin’s constitution was violated by Act 10 due to a change in how retirement pensions were allocated. In total, his decision appears to elevate collective bargaining to a constitutionally protected right in the state.
Walker responded to the ruling by calling Colas a “liberal activist judge” and vowed to appeal.
A federal appeals court in Chicago is currently hearing arguments over another controversial part of the law which would ban automatic withdrawal of union dues and force unions to hold elections every year.
In the meantime, collective bargaining is back, sort of. “Whether collective bargaining is really back immediately depends on the outcome of the State’s request that the judge ‘stay’ his ruling until after an appeal,” says Hitchcock Cross. “The general legal rule is that a judge’s order is immediately effective, but the judge has discretion to stay his ruling during the pendency of an appeal.”