Don’t expect yesterday’s Dane County court ruling overturning sections of Wisconsin’s anti-union law to remain operative for long.
The ruling by Judge Juan Colas voids the law for city, county and school workers on the grounds that it violated the workers’ constitutional right to free speech, free assembly and equal representation. It singles out public workers who choose to associate in a union for punishments not given to other workers. The ruling also turned on the fact that workers’ raises were capped at the rate of inflation, while non-union colleagues had no such cap on their wages. So workers can join a union, but “only if they give up their right to negotiate and receive wage increases greater than the cost of living,” Judge Colas wrote. In addition, Judge Colas found that the law violated “home rule” agreements in the Wisconsin state constitution. Essentially, the state legislature created laws that managed the contributions to pensions for city, county and school district workers, rather than allowing the cities to make that determination for the workers they hire and control.
This is all sound or at least arguable logic; local unions said from the start that Act 10, the anti-union law, violated home rule. In the words of Phil Neuenfeldt, President of the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO, “As we have said from day one, Scott Walker’s attempt to silence the union men and women of Wisconsin’s public sector was an immoral, unjust and illegal power grab.” A federal court overturned two provisions of the law earlier this year on similar equal protection grounds (because some “public safety” union workers were not subject to automatic dues deduction and annual union recertification, that created two separate classes of workers).
But this ruling is subject to appeal to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, an avenue that Governor Walker’s Administration plans to take. And the Wisconsin Supreme Court is simply one of the most partisan Supreme Courts in the nation. I have little doubt that they will overturn Judge Colas’ ruling.
They have experience with this, after all. A Dane County Judge overturned the anti-union law last year, on the grounds that the conference committee used to pass the law violated state open meetings requirements. In a brazen ruling, the state Supreme Court ruled, in a party-line 4-3 vote, that the legislature basically had free rein to conduct meetings in whatever way they see fit, regardless of the law.
I’ll give you an even more egregious example. In 2011, Republican Justice David Prosser choked a colleague on the Court, in the full view of all the other Justices, during deliberations on the aforementioned anti-union case. This triggered an ethics case by the state judicial commission. However, that case would have to be decided by the state Supreme Court. So Prosser figured out how to get out of it: he had his fellow Republican Justices recuse themselves from the case, meaning that the Court lacked a quorum for a ruling. Presto, ethics case gone.
It’s unclear whether school districts, cities and counties now have to go back to the bargaining table in Wisconsin with their workers while this gets ironed out. Walker could seek a temporary injunction to keep the law in place pending appeal. And cities and school districts lost money from the state in the most recent budget, using the disruption of collective bargaining to make changes to health care and benefits that balanced out their local budgets. Having to bargain would create significant gaps.
But if Walker wants a stay, the Supreme Court Justices will grant it, as a prelude to overturning the ruling. I really have no doubt of that.