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Unions in Wisconsin sue to reverse collective bargaining restrictions on teachers, others

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FILE - Protesters gather outside the state Capitol in Madison, Wis. on Saturday, Feb. 19, 2011. The protest was peaceful as both sides exchanged chants of "Pass the bill! Pass the bill!" and "Kill the bill! Kill the bill!" The Wisconsin governor, elected in November's GOP wave that also gave control of the state Assembly and Senate to Republicans, set off the protests earlier this week by pushing ahead with a measure that would require government workers to contribute more to their health care and pension costs and largely eliminate their collective bargaining rights. (AP Photo/Andy Manis)

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Seven unions representing teachers and other public workers in Wisconsin filed a lawsuit Thursday attempting to end the state’s near-total ban on collective bargaining for most public employees.

The 2011 law, known as Act 10, has withstood numerous legal challenges over the past dozen years and was the signature legislative achievement of former Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who used it to mount a presidential run.

The latest lawsuit is the first since the Wisconsin Supreme Court flipped to liberal control in August. But it was filed in a county circuit court — unlike other major cases that have gone directly to the Supreme Court since its ideological shift — and will likely take more than a year to make its way up for a final ruling.

The Act 10 law effectively ended collective bargaining for most public unions by allowing them to bargain solely over base wage increases no greater than inflation. It also disallowed the automatic withdrawal of union dues, required annual recertification votes for unions, and forced public workers to pay more for health insurance and retirement benefits.

The law’s introduction in 2011 spurred massive protests that stretched on for weeks. It made Wisconsin the center of a national fight over union rights; catapulted Walker onto the national stage; sparked an unsuccessful recall campaign; and laid the groundwork for his failed 2016 presidential bid. The law’s adoption led to a dramatic decrease in union membership across the state.

The lawsuit filed by teachers and other public workers on Thursday alleges Act 10’s exemption of some police, firefighters and other public safety workers from the bargaining restrictions violates the Wisconsin Constitution’s equal protection guarantee. The complaint notes that those exempted from the restrictions endorsed Walker in the 2010 gubernatorial election, while those subject to the restrictions did not.

A similar argument was made in a federal lawsuit alleging that Act 10 violated the equal protection guarantee in the U.S. Constitution. But a federal appeals court in 2013 said the state was free to draw a line between public safety and other unions, and the following year again ruled that the law was constitutional.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court in 2014 also upheld the law as constitutional, rejecting a lawsuit brought by teachers and Milwaukee public workers. That case raised different arguments than the current lawsuit. And in 2019, a federal judge rejected a lawsuit brought by two arms of the International Union of Operating Engineers that argued the law violates free speech and free association under the First Amendment.

The Wisconsin courts should follow the lead of the Missouri Supreme Court, which struck down a law resembling Act 10 in 2021 based on similar arguments, union attorney Jacob Karabell said in a written statement.

If the case reaches the Wisconsin Supreme Court, it’s unclear who would actually hear it.

Justice Janet Protasiewicz, whose win this year tilted majority control of the court 4-3 in favor of liberals, said during the campaign that she believes Act 10 is unconstitutional. She also told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that she would consider recusing herself from any case challenging the law. Protasiewicz participated in protests against the law and signed the petition to recall Walker.

Conservative Justice Brian Hagedorn was Walker’s chief legal counsel and had a role in drafting the Act 10 law. But during his successful run for the court in 2015, Hagedorn would not promise to recuse himself if a case challenging Act 10 came before the court.

If the latest lawsuit in Wisconsin is successful, all public sector workers who lost their collective bargaining power would have it restored. They would be treated the same as the police, firefighter and other public safety unions who remain exempt.

“The end of Act 10 would mean that we would have a real say again in our retirement plans, health care and time off — without the threat of loss of our union every year,” Wayne Rasmussen, who works for the Racine Unified School District, said in a statement. Rasmussen is one of three individuals named in the lawsuit along with the unions. He is vice president of the Service Employees International Union of Wisconsin, which represents health care workers and others.

Walker, in a statement to The Associated Press, accused “union bosses” of attempting to regain power.

“Multiple federal and state courts have upheld Act 10,” he said. “It is constitutional and it is working.”

Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said repealing the law, which allowed schools and local governments to raise money through higher employee contributions for benefits, would bankrupt those entities.

“This is another attempt by liberal special interest groups to undo the law to please their donors now that there’s been a shift in the court,” Vos said.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ administration was named as a defendant in the lawsuit since it is charged with implementing the law. But Evers opposed Act 10 at the time, when he was the state education secretary, and he also signed the Walker recall petition.

Spokespersons for Evers and for the state Department of Justice, which is charged with defending the state in the lawsuit, did not return email and text messages seeking comment.

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6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Roy

    December 1, 2023 at 12:00 pm

    All part of the left-wing plan with Judge Janet’s election to the Supreme Court serving as the trigger.
    The left is attempting through it’s suit challenging the legislative districts’ map to take control of the Assembly and Senate after it gained a majority on the Supreme Court. If they can’t get radical legislation passed, they take it to the courts, bypassing the will of the people.
    All, while they publicly plead for “bi-partisanship”. These are dangerous times that deserve your attention, before we become “Illinois North”.

    • Moped Nana

      December 4, 2023 at 6:38 am

      You are correct. Public sector workers shouldn’t have better benefits than private sector employees. Union bosses just don’t like the fact that they don’t have as much power and money from their members, who are FORCED to join, to influence elections to gain more power and influence.

  2. nick

    December 2, 2023 at 6:33 am

    The unions have no regard for the taxpayer . They have no regards
    for fiscal sanity. Th teacher unions as demonstrated in other states have no regard for education nor does the democratic party

  3. Mike Sladky

    December 2, 2023 at 8:57 am

    Public employees/workers should legally be able to form a voluntary union of its workers but they should be PROHIBITED from going on strike! Public sector employees are very distinct from private sector employees!

    • Moped Nana

      December 4, 2023 at 6:48 am

      Our children are falling behind in their academic prowess and educators think unions should bargain to get more money and that this make them more effective teachers? At least in the private sector, success can be measured by profits. You dont show results, you go out of business! Obviously public schools can’t go out of business and taxpayers s deserve good schools so they should get involved by running for a seat on their local school boards. Childrens education matters!

  4. Caped Crusader

    December 2, 2023 at 8:58 am

    Baloney. Union Strong!

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