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Ruling stokes contract fire

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staff, Gazette
September 18, 2012

— Wisconsin school and government employee unions Monday were considering whether to seek new contract talks after a state court threw out a controversial law that restricts public workers' collective bargaining rights.

At least one major union representing about 4,700 teachers in Madison said it will demand new contract negotiations, while others said they were weighing their options.

A Dane County judge ruled Friday that the law, passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature in 2011, violates the school and local employees' constitutional rights to free speech, free association and equal representation. Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen said he will ask a court on Tuesday to put the ruling on hold while he prepares an appeal.

The law, championed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker to address budget problems, has been the focal point of a broader clash between conservatives and unions over worker rights.

The ruling came in one of a number of lawsuits that are expected to determine the legality of curtailing employees' collective bargaining.

The law limits bargaining on wage increases to the rate of inflation. Other issues, such as workplace safety, vacation and health benefits, were excluded from collective bargaining.

Unions covered by contracts reached under the new law are considering whether to demand negotiations now that the law has been struck down. But the prospects for new action may remain unclear for some time as the appeals courts consider how to handle the legal challenges and lower court decisions.

"There are hundreds of questions about what this means for local school districts at this time and I don't think anybody has the answers," said Miles Turner, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators. "This is going to take some time."

John Matthews, the Madison teachers union's executive director, said the district should begin talks immediately on a two-year contract that would take effect starting July 1, 2013.

"There is time now where it's legal for the school district to bargain with us," Matthews said. His union represents about 4,700 employees in the Madison district, the state's second largest with about 27,000 students.

The district's superintendent, Jane Belmore, said the board of education will discuss the issue Monday night.

The state's largest teachers' union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, advised its local affiliates to act in its members best interests.

In Janesville, Dave Parr, president of the Janesville Education Association, said he would request that the district and teachers begin bargaining on a new contract if the appeals court does not put the ruling on hold.

The Janesville teachers contract runs out June 30, 2013, and officials plan to impose higher costs on employees for health insurance, among other changes in benefits and working conditions.

Van Hollen, who derided the ruling as "woefully legally deficient," said he had not decided whether he will ask the state's conservative-leaning Supreme Court to take the case directly, rather than have it go to the appeals court first.

Legal experts said they expect higher courts to stay the Dane County ruling.

"I would be shocked if it was not granted so that all these bargaining units don't have to deal with the fallout while it's in litigation," said Janine Geske, a former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice who is now a law professor at Marquette University.

Paul Secunda, a labor law professor at Marquette, said beginning collective bargaining now would create "mass confusion."

The Dane County ruling said that capping union workers' raises but not those of their nonunion counterparts was unconstitutional.

The suit, filed by the Madison teachers union, applied to local and school employees, but not those employed by the state or the UW System.

THREE LAWSUITS PENDING IN WISCONSIN UNION FIGHT

A state court ruling that threw out major parts of the new Wisconsin law restricting collective bargaining came in one of three lawsuits challenging the 2011 law.

Here is a summary of each:

-- Madison Teachers Inc. and Public Employees Local 61 vs. Walker: This case, filed in Dane County Circuit Court in August 2011, argued in part that the law was unconstitutional because it capped union workers' raises but not those of their nonunion counterparts.

Judge Juan Colas agreed on Friday, saying that was a violation of the constitutional rights to free speech, free association and equal representation.

The judge also ruled that the law violated the "home rule" clause of the state constitution by setting the contribution for Milwaukee city employees to the city pension system rather than leaving it to the city and workers.

The ruling means the law is not in effect for school and local government workers, while it remains in effect for state workers and employees of the UW System.

-- AFL-CIO and AFSCME vs. Walker: An AFL-CIO chapter representing about 240 Madison city workers and an AFSCME chapter representing about 2,440 Dane County workers filed a federal lawsuit in July 2011 alleging that the law violated their constitutional rights to freely assemble, free speech and equal protection.

They argued that the restrictions hurt public sector unions' ability to express their collective viewpoints. They said the law also makes it difficult for people to associate with public unions and express mutual concerns.

The chapters also note that the restrictions don't apply to public safety workers' unions, allowing different treatment under the law and "creating unnecessary conflict among the employees and divisions within and among public sector labor organizations."

Attorneys representing Gov. Scott Walker and the commission members have filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. They argue collective bargaining is a state-granted privilege, not a constitutional right, and the unions failed to present any evidence that they can no longer assemble or petition the government as one.

The unions' equal protection claims also fail, they argued, because Wisconsin's history is full of examples of the state treating unions differently. The state exempted public safety workers from the changes in order to avoid work stoppages that might endanger citizens, they added.

Both sides are waiting for a ruling on the dismissal motion.

-- Seven public unions, including the teachers' union and the largest statewide public sector union, vs. Walker: A coalition of seven large unions filed a federal lawsuit in Madison in June 2011 challenging the constitutionality of the law.

U.S. District Judge William Conley in March overturned a part of the law requiring that unions hold elections each year for members to retain their official status. The judge also said the law illegally halted the automatic withdrawal of union dues.

The crux of the lawsuit's arguments — that the law violated the constitution's equal protection clause by exempting firefighters and police officers, was rejected by the judge who said Walker had a legitimate concern when making that distinction.

The majority of the law remained untouched.

Arguments before the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals are scheduled for Monday, Sept. 24.

Organizations that filed the lawsuit include councils of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO, the American Federation of Teachers, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the Wisconsin State Employees Union and the Service Employees International Union-Health Care Wisconsin.

—Associated Press



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