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Wisconsin Supreme Court Upholds Law Curbing Public Unions

The Wisconsin Supreme Court on Thursday upheld Act 10, the state law passed amid rancorous debate in 2011 that sharply curtails the collective-bargaining rights of teachers' unions and most other public-employee labor groups.

"Collective bargaining remains a creation of legislative grace and not constitutional obligation," the state's highest court said in its 5-2 decision.

The court upheld the law in its entirety, handing a victory to Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican who led the charge to scale back the power of public-employee unions.

Act 10 bars collective bargaining between municipal employers such as cities and school districts and labor representatives on all subjects except base wages. This provision stripped issues such as hours, working conditions, and grievance procedures from the collective-bargaining process. Also, base wage increases were limited to the annual increase in the Consumer Price Index unless a larger raise was approved by referendum.

The statute also bars "fair-share" or agency-shop arrangements in which public-employee unions may charge employees who object to joining their share of fees for collective-bargaining activities. The law also bars local governments from deducting dues from employee paychecks on behalf of the unions. And it requires annual recertification of the unions as the bargaining representatives of employees.

Act 10 drew thousands of demonstrators to the state capitol in Madison for weeks before it was passed as part of a budget bill. The law's measures have seriously hampered teachers' unions and other targeted public-employee labor organizations in the state.

Not at issue in this case before the Wisconsin Supreme Court were provisions of Act 10 that distinguished between "general" unions, which included the teachers' unions, and "public-safety" unions, which covered most of those representing law-enforcement personnel and firefighters. The general unions charged in a separate federal lawsuit that the distinction was included in Act 10 because most public-safety unions supported Walker's 2010 election.

A federal appeals court last year rejected the equal-protection challenge to the disparate treatment of the unions, noting that "political favoritism" was a frequent motivation for lawmakers.

'No Obligation to Bargain'

In the case before the Wisconsin high court, Madison Teachers Inc. v. Walker, the majority concluded that Act 10 did not violate the First Amendment rights of association or state constitutional equal-protection rights of workers.

The law did not burden employee's rights to organize themselves in a labor organization or to speak out on issues, the majority said. 

"No one disputes that the plaintiffs have a constitutional right to organize with others in pursuit of a variety of political, educational, religious, or cultural ends" Justice Michael J. Gableman wrote for the majority, but "it is undisputed that collective bargaining is not constitutionally protected. Indeed, Wisconsin is under no constitutional obligation to collectively bargain at all."

Justice N. Patrick Crooks wrote a concurring opinion that while the majority's legal conclusions were correct, Act 10 "effectively ended meaningful union representation" for many public employees and was counter to Wisconsin's progressive heritage.

"It is my view that the Wisconsin legislature and governor could have chosen a different way to accomplish a goal of cost savings that would have left intact meaningful union representation carried out through statutory collective bargaining for public employees," Crooks said.

Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, in a dissent joined by Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson, said that under the majority's decision, "The right of freedom of association to organize is diluted as the majority has opened the door for the state to withhold benefits and punish individuals based on their membership in disfavored groups."

In a statement on Thursday, Walker, who survived a recall election after the passage of the union measure and is facing re-election this year, said, "Act 10 has saved Wisconsin taxpayers more than $3 billion. Today's ruling is a victory for those hard-working taxpayers."

Madison Teachers Inc., a National Education Association affiliate representing teachers in the Madison school district and the lead plaintiff in the suit, issued a statement calling the decision "not only extremely disappointing, but morally bankrupt."

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