A reprieve for Wisconsin labor?

November 7, 2012

Andrew Cole looks at the ongoing battle over Wisconsin's anti-union law.

WISCONSIN'S PUBLIC-sector workers may escape the brunt of Republican Gov. Scott Walker's anti-union laws, thanks to a September court ruling. But with Walker and anti-union forces set to appeal the ruling, unions that represent government workers are still at risk of losing their right to collective bargaining.

Dane County Circuit Judge Juan Colas ruled September 14 that several key parts of Act 10--the controversial legislation that sparked mass protests in Madison in the winter of 2011--are unconstitutional.

Arguing that Act 10 violates the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause, Colas also concluded that sections of the law "single out and encumber the rights of those employees who choose union membership and representation solely because of that association and therefore infringe upon the rights of free speech and association."

The Walker administration and Republicans in the state legislature were quick to denounce the judge and appeal the decision. Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen has pressed for a stay on implementing the decision to prevent unions from negotiating contracts without Act 10's draconian restrictions. Under Walker's law, public-sector unions would have to recertify as a bargaining unit every year and could negotiate wage increases up to the rate of inflation.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker campaigns for Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker campaigns for Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan (Lacy Landre)

But for the time being, Act 10 is null and void for county and municipal workers.

Regardless of the final outcome of the appeals process, the ruling validated one of the central themes of the Wisconsin uprising in the winter of 2011that Walker's assault on the labor movement was a lawless power grab by a cocky Republican majority emboldened by the 2010 election sweep of the governor's mansion and state legislature.

THE BID to crush public-sector unions under the guise of a "budget repair bill" sparked one of the greatest labor protests in decades. What began with a student protest at the Capitol on February 14 mushroomed into a full-blown occupation of the building, followed by daily protests of tens of thousands and several weekend mobilizations of about 100,000.

A sick-out by Madison Teachers Inc. (MTI) went statewide as state teachers unions called on members to skip work and protest at the Capitol. A broad section of the labor movement in both the public and private sector responded to the protests--and unions from around the U.S. sent delegations in support.

The pressure from the labor uprising kept 14 Democratic state senators out of the state for several weeks, denying Walker the quorum needed to pass the law. But Walker and his allies use a legislative maneuver to push the law through anyway. Union leaders, rather than going forward with more protests or job actions, pursued a strategy of recall elections--first of Republican state senators, then of Walker himself. Both failed.

In the meantime, some public-sector unions took concessionary contracts before Act 10 came into effect. Madison-area unions, including AFSCME Local 60 and MTI, seized the opportunity to negotiate contract extensions without Walker's restrictions on collective bargaining.

Unfortunately for Madison teachers and other county and city workers, their extended contracts reflect many of the economic concessions that Walker had demanded. For example, Madison's city workers in Local 60 lost a 3 percent pay raise to offset the increased cost of health care and pensions coming from Act 10.

The city also exploited the urgency of negotiating a contract extension before an appeals court could issue a stay on the decision. That allowed officials to extract additional concessions and sideline any discussion of issues outside of compensation, such as job posting and transfer language, sick leave and time off for political activities.

Meanwhile, the school district was able to gain a key concession from the union related to hiring nonunion workers to programs that affect fewer than 10 students. The district has also reserved the power to hire nonunion workers to larger programs with school board approval.

The situation for Madison's teachers and city workers is less dire compared to their counterparts in other areas of the state, who have endured much worse pay cuts and the loss of job security in the wake of Act 10. In one AFSCME local in New Berlin, all 45 members were laid off--the local donated the remaining $10,000 from the union's treasury to a local food pantry.

Membership losses have been drastic. Several American Federation of Teachers (AFT) locals decided that meeting Walker's recertification burdens is too costly and members have opted out of paying dues as their wallets are pinched by increased health care and pension costs. AFSCME has lost half of its Wisconsin membership. AFT-Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the Wisconsin National Education Association affiliate, are considering a merger after each organization lost roughly 30 percent of their members.

All this is why Judge Colas' ruling is a breath of fresh air for unionists who have found themselves under siege in Walker's Wisconsin. We should most certainly applaud any space the labor movement can secure to fend off Act 10's worst effects. But recall elections, lawsuits and sparsely attended city council and school board meetings stand in stark contrast to 2011's spirited occupation of the Capitol building and street protests attended by tens of thousands of demonstrators.

Whether or not Act 10 is upheld on appeal, the hard work of rebuilding Wisconsin labor must continue.

"As the illusion of peaceful partnerships between workers and management breaks down, union activists are going to need to find ways of breaking with the service model approach we've been utilizing for decades, said AFSCME Local 60 member Ben Ratiliffe, "and mobilize our members for a real fightback."

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