Wisconsin Workers Win Fight on Yearly Union Renewal

Wisconsin’s requirement that the state’s public employees vote each year on whether to keep their unions was struck down by a federal judge.

While U.S. District Judge William M. Conley in Madison, the state capital, yesterday upheld the bulk of a 2011 law curbing public employee collective bargaining rights, he said the annual recertification provision violates constitutional equal protection rights. The state failed to justify why “general employee” unions are required to comply and “public safety” unions are exempt, he said.

The judge also invalidated a part of Wisconsin Act 10, signed by Republican Governor Scott Walker last year, that prohibited the voluntary deduction of union dues from the paychecks of general employees only.

“The immediate effect is that it will return the voice that this act took from the workers,” Mark Sweet, a lawyer for one of the public employee unions, said. “The judge called the act unprecedented and pointed out the strong political motives that were involved in its implementation.”

The law required unions to poll their members yearly on whether they wanted to be in the organization. To continue, the union would have needed positive votes from a majority of all its members, not just those voting.

Judge’s Ruling

All of the public safety unions qualifying for the exemption had supported Walker in his 2010 gubernatorial campaign while none of the general employee unions to which the rule applied had backed him, said Conley.

“Act 10’s exemption of public safety employees from the annual recertification requirement and the prohibition on dues withholding certainly has no obvious relationship to the government’s supposed concern with disruptions by public safety employees,” the judge said in his 39-page ruling.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled 4-3 last year that the law was lawfully adopted.

Walker’s signing of the legislation prompted protests outside the state Capitol and sparked a drive to recall him from office.

The state’s Government Accountability Board, which oversees Wisconsin’s elections, yesterday said more than 900,000 people had signed those petitions, and set that election for June 5.

Milwaukee Mayor

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, a Democrat, said he would oppose Walker in that election.

A spokesman for the governor, Cullen Werwie, said in an e-mailed statement that Conley upheld the majority of Act 10.

“We are confident that the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals will continue to uphold the constitutionality of the law,” Werwie said, referring to the Chicago-based U.S. appeals court where any challenge to Conley’s decision would be heard.

Union attorney Barbara Zack Quindel said in a phone interview that no decision has been made on whether to appeal those parts of the law that the court upheld.

“If the ruling stands, unions representing non-‘public safety employees’ will no longer have to demonstrate member support through annual recertification and will have greater ability to take money out of employees’ paychecks,” state Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen said in a statement after the ruling. “While this may give the unions more power over their members, it does nothing to benefit the public employees of this state.”

The case is Wisconsin Education Association Council v. Walker, 11-cv-428, U.S. District Court, Western District of Wisconsin (Madison).

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