The Wisconsin Supreme Court dealt a blow to unions by upholding a controversial 2011 union-limiting law that placed the then newly elected governor and unions at odds over negotiated union contracts. This ruling promises to produce a very interesting and contentious election come November.
When the law was first presented to the state legislature, Democrats so strongly opposed it that they refused to attend the legislative sessions. Their refusal denied the Republicans a legislative quorum preventing them from voting the bill into law. Unions led daily protests as the legislature was unable accomplish anything. When subpoenas were issued to force the Democrats back into chambers, all Democratic Senators fled to neighboring Illinois.
The controversy led to lawsuits and an attempt to recall Governor Scott Walker. After a recall election was mandated, Walker received over $30 million for the recall campaign. The majority of that money was raised out-of-state. Ultimately Walker won the recall battle by garnering 53 percent of the vote. The union’s suit, however, has been moving through the courts, culminating with a 5-2 vote by the State Supreme Court upholding the law.
At the heart of the matter was Walker’s Budget Repair Bill, also known as 2011 Wisconsin Act 10. It was written to address a projected $3.6 billion budget deficit. The legislation impacted collective bargaining, compensation, retirement, health insurance and sick leave of union represented public sector employees.
The Wisconsin court dealt a further blow, requiring the unions to re-certify on a yearly basis. Employers would also be prohibited from collecting dues for the union. The bill also placed collective bargaining restrictions on unions for most Wisconsin public employees. Restrictions included a limit on wage increases that could not exceed a cap predicated on the consumer price index, unless approved by a referendum. Contracts would also be limited to one year, and it froze wages until a new contract could be agreed upon.
These changes were to take effect on the expiration of existing contracts. Exempt from these changes were local law enforcement, state troopers, inspectors and fire personnel. Employees were also obligated to pay towards their medical benefits. That amount was set to at least 12.6 percent of the average annual premium cost.
Justice Michael Gableman wrote the court’s majority opinion and stated, “…bargaining remains a creation of legislative grace, not constitutional obligation.” He also ruled that the First Amendment cannot be used to expand parameters of benefits it does not protect.
Two additional closely watched issues were ruled on. They upheld a law requiring voters to show photo identification when registering and creating a registry for same-sex couples in a domestic partnership. Their impact was limited because of related issues that are still pending in the courts.
Justice Ann Walsh Bradley wrote the court’s dissenting opinion stating that the ruling did not address the issues presented, rather it dodges and twists the issues to conform to their own desired outcome. The Madison teachers union called the ruling “morally bankrupt.” The ruling by the conservative court did not come as a surprise to the unions.
While the Wisconsin court dealt this blow to the unions, Walker issued a statement simply saying that the ruling was a victory for hard-working taxpayers and that Act 10 had saved the taxpayers in excess of $3 billion. Opponents to the bill gave no account of what actions they would take, stating only that they are preparing for the upcoming elections.
By Hans Benes