MADISON, Wisc. (CN) – A federal judge struck down key provisions of the law that set off Wisconsin’s labor wars and recalls, issuing an injunction “requiring a return to automatic dues deductions for all members of public unions no later than May 31, 2012,” and enjoining the bill’s “mandatory recertification of general employee unions by an absolute majority of their members.”
Gov. Scott Walker’s so-called “Budget Repair Bill” prohibited public employees’ unions from negotiating for anything but salary, and made it harder for public workers to be represented by, or retain membership in, unions.
The bill, and the unusual tactics used to ram it through the Legislature, set off statewide protests that will culminate in recall elections against Walker, his lieutenant governor and four state senators.
It also set off a rash of copycat legislation in statehouses around the country.
Seven of Wisconsin’s largest public employee unions sued Walker on constitutional grounds in June 2011 in Madison Federal Court.
The unions, representing teachers, healthcare workers and AFSCME, claimed the bill, also known as Act 10, unfairly left untouched the rights of public-safety workers to unionize and bargain collectively, while other public employees lost most of those rights.
In the statewide melee over the bill, it did not pass unnoticed that police tend to vote Republican more often than teachers do.
“Under Act 10, the State left the rights of public safety employees to unionize and collectively bargain unchanged, while general employees lost most of these rights,” U.S. District Judge William Conley wrote in his 39-page Opinion and Order. “Here, plaintiffs challenge three, specific provisions of Act 10 impacting only general employees and their unions: (1) the elimination of mandatory dues and fair share fees and the stripping of all collective bargaining rights, except on ‘total base wages’; (2) the apparently unprecedented requirement for annual recertification by an absolute majority of union members (as opposed to conditional or member-driven recertification by a simple majority of those actually voting); and (3) a prohibition on the voluntary withholding of union dues from a general employee’s paycheck.”
Conley ruled that the unions failed to show that eliminating broader collective bargaining for their members violates equal protection.
The unions did not show there was a no rational basis for the state to grant broader collective bargaining powers to public safety unions. Conley said the state’s claimed reason – to avoid strikes by those workers – met that test.
Conley agreed, however, that prohibiting annual dues deductions and requiring annual recertification of unions was unconstitutional.
“So long as the State of Wisconsin continues to afford ordinary certification and dues deductions to mandatory public safety unions with sweeping bargaining rights, there is no rational basis to deny those rights to voluntary general unions with severely restricted bargaining rights,” Conley wrote.
He added: “In press releases and public addresses, the Governor claimed that Act 10 was needed to balance the state budget and give state and municipal governments the tools to manage during economic crisis. There is nothing in the record to suggest prohibiting dues withholding for some, but not all, public sector employees provides an administrative savings.”
With regard to the “onerous recertification provision,” Conley said it is “irrational to impose this unique burden on a voluntary union with highly restrictive bargaining rights while maintaining far less burden on public safety unions in which involuntary membership and monetary support continue to be mandated by law.”
Conley found the ban on dues deductions violated the First Amendment because dues money is generally used to fund protected speech.
“Whether or not the prohibition on automatic dues deductions for most public unions, but not those who supported the new Governor and Legislature, was an intentional act to suppress the speech of those who opposed then, it has that appearance,” Conley wrote.
But Conley disagreed with the unions’ claim that the state had no rational basis to treat public safety workers differently than general employees under both Equal Protection and the First Amendment.
“Here, there is no suspect class involved and plaintiffs have failed to present sufficient evidence that exempting public safety employees from the new, expansive restrictions on collective bargaining bears no rational relationship to a legitimate government interest in avoiding strikes of those employees,” he wrote.
He also rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that Act 10 unconstitutionally exempts public safety employees who endorsed Walker’s bid for governor. “This is not an ordinary case in any number of respects, but it is ordinary in the sense that political favoritism is no grounds for heightened scrutiny under the Equal Protection clause,” Conley wrote.
Wisconsin’s Government Accountability Board voted 5-0 on March 30 to order recall elections against Walker, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and four Republican state senators. The primaries will be held on May 8, the general elections on June 5.