A Wisconsin judge has struck down key sections of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s controversial anti-labor law, in a ruling that union leaders say renews collective-bargaining rights for tens of thousands of municipal and school district employees across the state.
“Collective bargaining has been restored for teachers across Wisconsin, for municipal employees across Wisconsin,” declared Madison Teachers Inc. director John Matthews, whose union brought the suit along with Laborers Local 61, a Milwaukee Public employees union. “We are back to where we were before Scott Walker moved to take away our rights.”
Dane County Judge Juan Colas ruled that Walker’s law—which sparked mass protests, the occupation of the state Capitol for weeks and a series of recall elections that (while they did not remove the governor from office) shifted control of the state Senate from Walker’s Republican allies to pro-labor Democrats—violates “rights of free speech, association and equal protection.”
The judge also ruled that Walker’s Act 10 violated the state constitution’s Home Rule Amendment, which allows municipalities to establish their own laws and practices, and the state constitutional prohibition against impairment of contracts. Those sections of the decision restore refer to pension protections, which had been undermined by Act 10.
Because of the violations of federal and state constitutional protections, Judge Colas ruled unequivocally that: “Those sections found to be unconstitutional are void and without effect.”
The Walker administration announced immediately that it would appeal the decision, and there was lively debate about where exactly relations between local governments and school districts now stand.
But Matthews said that, after consultation with his lawyer and with school board members, he believes “collective bargaining is back in effect. Our rights have been restored to where they were in January, 2011.”
Under Walker’s Act 10, most of the protections contained in Wisconsin’s fifty-year-old public employee collective bargaining law were struck down. Workers for the state, counties, municipalities and school districts were barred from negotiating for benefits and pensions and on workplace safety issues. Public-employee unions could not organize in traditional ways and faced limits on their ability to collect dues and otherwise maintain their operations.
Now, says Lester Pines, the attorney for the two unions that sued the state, “the decision essentially creates the  status quo for municipal employees and school district employees because it declared the essential provisions of Act 10 to be unconstitutional.”
That is not necessarily the case for state employees, since the ruling came in a case brought by municipal and school district employee unions.
But state employee union leaders say their lawyers are reviewing the judge’s decision and they suggest that the detailed referencing of constitutional concerns leads them to believe they could seek judicial intervention on behalf of their members.
What this means is that the Wisconsin fight, now more than a year and a half old, is far from finished.
It also means that union activists who framed their mass protests in February and March of 2011 on constitutional lines, arguing that their rights were under attack, may well have understood the real issues better than the governor or his legislative allies.
“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,” Phil Neuenfeldt, the president of the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO, said Friday night. “Now, a court has ruled that the essential provisions of Act 10, Scott Walker’s draconian attack on public worker’s right to collectively bargain, is unconstitutional.”
For more on union politics, check out our coverage of the Chicago Teachers Union strike.