Wisconsin Court Upholds Bargaining Bill; Unions Sue in Federal Court

Published June 17, 2011

The Wisconsin Supreme Court delivered “a resounding humiliation” to a state judge by overturning her ruling invalidating restrictions on collective bargaining powers for unionized government workers, said Maureen Martin, senior fellow for legal affairs at The Heartland Institute.

Meanwhile, unions have sued in federal court over the matter.

In a case filed by the liberal Dane County district attorney challenging the law, the Wisconsin Supreme Court on June 14 ruled the Republican leadership in the legislature did not violate the Wisconsin Open Meetings Act when it passed the bill earlier this year. The court further ruled that Dane County Circuit Court Judge Maryann Sumi ignored nearly 70 years of settled Wisconsin law by invalidating the measure before it was finalized. By doing so, the court ruled, she invaded and interfered with the legislative process, thus violating the Wisconsin Constitution, which bars judges from doing exactly that.

“The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling was a resounding humiliation for Judge Sumi,” said Martin. “Any first year law student knows that the legislative branch of government enacts laws and the judicial branch evaluates their legality after enactment. These principles are embodied in the Wisconsin Constitution, as well as the U.S. Constitution, but Judge Sumi chose to ignore them in her ruling. The high court did the right thing in slapping down Judge Sumi, who should go back for a refresher course in constitutional law.”

‘Opportunity to Move Forward’
Governor Scott Walker (R), who championed the restrictions on collective bargaining, said in a statement, “The Supreme Court’s ruling provides our state the opportunity to move forward together and focus on getting Wisconsin working again.”

“The Supreme Court of the State of Wisconsin has been heard. I think, overwhelmingly, people around the state believe legal action is done, it’s time for us to move forward,” Walker said. “I think ultimately that’s going to prevail.”

Members of the Wisconsin state AFL-CIO, American Federation of Teachers-Wisconsin and other unions filed suit in Federal court the day after the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling, challenging the constitutionality of the legislation.

‘Blatant Discrimination’ Alleged
“Scott Walker has not only ignored the voice of hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites who oppose his extremist legislation; he has also taken a
baseball bat to the Constitutional rights of one group of public employees,” said AFT-Wisconsin President Bryan Kennedy in a statement. “We are optimistic that the courts will agree, and this blatant discrimination will not stand.”

The main issues in the federal suit involve provisions in the state’s Budget Repair Bill that exempt police and firefighters. The unions’ suit contends it is unconstitutional for lawmakers to discriminate among classes of government employees. They contend the exemptions for police and firefighters reward political allies of the governor and punish political opponents.

Among other things, the bill blocks workers from negotiating health and pension benefits. The bill does allow collective bargaining over wages.

Optional Union Membership
The bill also makes union membership optional. Workers also must write a check for union dues rather than automatically have dues deducted from their paychecks.

The bill also requires affected workers to pay 5.8 percent of their earnings to their pensions and 12.6 percent of the cost of their health insurance premiums. Workers had been paying approximately 5 percent of the cost of their health insurance and nothing to their retirement plans.

Early this year more than one dozen of Wisconsin’s Democratic Party senators fled the state and spent several weeks hiding out in Illinois in an effort to shut down action on the bill. At the same time, tens of thousands of teachers and other government workers from Wisconsin and neighboring states poured into the state capitol of Madison and took over the capitol building.

Republicans on March 9 broke off the collective bargaining measure from the rest of the governor’s broader budget bill. This allowed them to vote without the missing senators because only a quorum is needed to act on measures that are not fiscal in nature.

Assembly members had earlier passed the budget with the collective bargaining changes.

Steve Stanek ([email protected]) is a research fellow at The Heartland Institute and managed editor of Budget & Tax News.