Wisconsin Judge Strikes Down Collective Bargaining Restrictions

By: - September 17, 2012 12:00 am

A county judge in Wisconsin has thrown out most of Governor Scott Walker’s law that severely restricts collective bargaining for public employees, throwing into question changes to contracts already negotiated under the year-old law.

In a ruling announced late Friday (September 14), Judge Juan Colás of Dane County Circuit Court overturned the law as it applied to city, county and school district workers, but not to state workers, who were not among the lawsuit’s plaintiffs.

Colás said provisions prohibiting local governments from bargaining with union workers over issues such as wage increases, health benefits, pensions and work conditions violated the state and federal constitutions.

Under the decision, unions could presumably head back to the bargaining tables with their government employers, perhaps undoing major concessions included in their current contracts. That could spell financial trouble for local governments which, in exchange for the eroded bargaining rights, receive less money from the state.

“The impact could be dramatic,” Don Hietpas, chief financial officer for the Appleton Area School District, told the Green Bay Press-Gazette.

As Stateline reported earlier this year, the loss of state money under the new law outweighed what some local governments gained from contract negotiations.

Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen said Saturday the state will appeal the ruling, calling Walker’s law “constitutional in all respects.” The state will also seek a stay of the decision to keep the law in effect during continuing litigation, he said.

“We are confident that the state will ultimately prevail in the appeals process,” said Walker, calling the decision the workings of a “liberal activist judge.”

Walker’s law, which led to mass protests in Wisconsin and in other states where GOP-majority legislatures were pushing similar crackdowns on union power, Judge Colás said, violated union members’ rights to free speech and expression and equal protection under the law because it created different classes of workers. The law applied only to those who had joined unions, except for police and firefighters, who retained their bargaining rights regardless of their associations.

“The statute limits what local governments may offer their employees solely because of that association,” the judge wrote.

Labor groups cheered the ruling, calling it a victory for workers’ rights.

“This is a good day for Wisconsin’s working people and the union movement,” Stephanie Bloomingdale, Secretary-Treasurer of the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO,said in a statement. “When workers choose to join together for mutual aid and protection, their employer should honor their choice, come to the table and discuss wages and working conditions.”

The case is likely to reach the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which has a conservative majority. Last year, the court upheld the law amid a challenge on procedural grounds.

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