Judge rules in case over Wis. collective bargaining law

Michael P. Tremoglie Apr. 2, 2012, 11:00am


MADISON, Wis. (Legal Newsline) - A federal judge has rejected the attempt by labor unions to declare Wisconsin's law limiting the collective bargaining privileges of some government employees as unconstitutional.

The opinion, rendered Friday, did state that some provisions of the law were not valid though. The law, known as Act 10, was strongly advocated by Gov. Scott Walker and just as strongly despised by unions.

Its passage led to weeks of protests by government unions - especially the Wisconsin state teachers' union, as well as recall petitions for Walker and some Republican legislators.

The legislation contained three key provisions. The one provision left intact by the federal court was that collective bargaining would be restricted to "only total base wages."

The bill excluded collective bargaining for other compensation, "which includes, but is not limited to, overtime, premium pay, merit pay, performance pay, supplemental compensation, pay schedules, and automatic pay progressions."

Judge William Conley, of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin, wrote in his opinion that, "plaintiffs have not met their burden with respect to their Equal Protection challenge to Act 10's principal provisions limiting the collective bargaining rights of general employees and their unions."

But Conley did invalidate two other provisions. One was the recertification requirement, which states "that once any collective bargaining agreement in effect at the time of Act 10's enactment has expired or terminated, unions representing general employees must submit to recertification each year."

The other was the collection of union dues. This clause states that "employers are prohibited from deducting union dues or fair-share fees from the payroll checks of general employees."

The Wisconsin Education Association Council said - as part of a written statement, "Act 10 eliminated workers' rights to have a voice through their union. The two provisions found unlawful were specifically intended to attack the operations and viability of unions that didn't support Scott Walker by requiring us to go through excessive hoops in order to maintain basic operations... But the fact of the matter is that our members still don't have their bargaining rights back. And the fight continues until workers' rights to negotiate for fair wages and safe working conditions are fully restored. WEAC is fully committed to reclaiming Wisconsin by recalling Scott Walker. Today's ruling represents a step forward in the battle to restore the rights of workers - and it shines a light on the extreme political agenda and partisan politics Scott Walker has rammed through since taking office."

Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation in Springfield, Va., issued this in response to Conley's opinion striking down several aspects of Wisconsin's recently-enacted public sector union reforms:

"Critically, Judge Conley's ruling reaffirms the right of states to limit government union officials' monopoly bargaining powers. Once again, a federal court has made it clear that union officials have no right to collect dues or fees from nonmembers. "While we disagree with the ruling's conclusion that there isn't a rational basis for recertification requirements and a ban on the use of taxpayer funded-payroll systems to collect union dues for general employees, the opinion shows why public safety officials should not have been exempted in the first place.... If anything, this ruling provides a blueprint for state legislators looking to limit union officials' extraordinary special legal powers that no other private organization enjoys."

Some observers think different parts of the judge's ruling are more significant than others.

According to Vincent Verduccio, the labor policy counsel for the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., the most important part of the judge's ruling was the invalidation of the part of the bill regarding the automatic dues deduction and the annual recerticification of labor unions.

The court said these provisions violated the Equal Protection Clause and First Amendment because it was not universally applied since the Wisconsin law exempted public safety employees.

"The law would not universally apply to all government employees," He said. "The judge did rule that Wisconsin can limit the collective bargaining privileges of government employee unions."

He noted that this could still be appealed by either side. The court did say it will enter an injunction requiring a return to the procedure for the automatic deduction of government employee union dues for all members by May 31.

The judge said this would permit the defendants sufficient time to seek a stay from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit of his injunction. He also said this would allow the government to establish procedures for automatic deductions if the Seventh Circuit affirmed.

Daniel Di Salvo, an assistant professor of Political Science at the City University of New York, differs from Vernuccio. He thinks that the most important aspect of the judge's ruling was the part about collecting dues.

"I always thought that the part about recertification elections was bizarre. I never understood the rationale," The important part of the court's opinion is that of the collection of the union dues by the government. This reduces the expenses of the labor union."

Regarding the validation of limiting collective bargaining, he said, "I think most states have the power to adopt a whole range of practices for the public employee relations. The idea that Wisconsin can make the law is within the purview of the state government is quite apparent to me."

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