The legal battle over Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s signature collective bargaining legislation continued this week, with a Madison judge ruling restrictions on the practice are unconstitutional. Judge Juan Colas also found state labor relations officials in contempt for enforcing parts of the law’s restrictions he ruled invalid in September 2012.
The rulings mean school districts and municipal employers must resume negotiations with unions that request talks, but unions can’t force employers into binding arbitrations and public worker unions can’t legally go on strike.
State legislators approved the labor union reforms, pushed by Walker as a cost-saving measure, in 2011. In addition to curtailing collective bargaining rights, the law requires most state workers to pay more for their health insurance and pension benefits.
Confusion erupted after Colas’ 2012 ruling because it was ambiguous as to whether it applied solely to the two unions challenging the law, or statewide to all unions of the same type. The Wisconsin Employment Relations Committee (WERC) interpreted the ruling as limited to only the Madison teachers and Milwaukee public workers who brought the case, and has continued to uphold provisions of the legislation statewide. Per the law, they were preparing elections in November for union members to vote on whether they wanted their union to continue representing them in negotiations.
Six other unions filed a motion with Colas this September demanding he find WERC in contempt, arguing his ruling did indeed reach across the state.
“The defendants ignored you … and that cannot stand,” Lester Pines, an attorney who represents Madison teachers and the Kenosha Education Association, one of the six unions that filed the contempt motion, told Colas during a hearing Monday. “If they do not respect the rulings of the court, the rule of law is meaningless.”
Steven Kilpatrick, a state Department of Justice attorney representing WERC, countered that the commission has refrained from enforcing the restrictions on the Madison teachers and Milwaukee workers represented in the original case.
On Monday, Colas clarified his own ruling, stating his original decision wiped the provisions out of existence. “I think this conduct was nothing more than an attempt to elude the application of a judgment the commissioners knew full well applied,” the judge said.
Meanwhile, the state has already appealed Colas’ original ruling and the Wisconsin Supreme Court has agreed to take the case. WERC officials posted a statement on the agency’s website saying they will comply with Colas’ decision, but plan to ask the state Supreme Court to stay the ruling. The scheduled elections could go on next month as planned if the court grants one quickly enough, the statement said.
A group of conservative-leaning justices currently controls the court. A Walker spokesman released a statement saying his administration was confident the court will uphold the law in its entirety.