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New lawsuit filed against collective bargaining law

By: Associated Press//June 15, 2011//

New lawsuit filed against collective bargaining law

By: Associated Press//June 15, 2011//

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Members of the Assembly debate Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed budget bill on Wednesday in Madison. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)
Members of the Assembly debate Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed budget bill on Wednesday in Madison. A group of unions on Wednesday filed a lawsuit against Walker's collective bargaining law. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin state employees will start paying more for their health care and pension benefits in late August, state officials said Wednesday as a coalition of unions filed a new lawsuit against the GOP-supported plan that strips away collective bargaining rights from most public workers.

The announcement came a day after the state Supreme Court ruled that a lower court judge overstepped her authority when she voided the governor’s polarizing plan to prohibit workers from collectively bargaining over anything except base pay increases no greater than inflation. Local police, firefighters and state patrol are exempt.

The law also requires workers to pay 12 percent of their health insurance costs and 5.8 percent of their pension costs, which amount to an 8 percent pay cut on average.

The Supreme Court’s ruling was a major victory for Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who said the law was needed to help address the state’s $3.6 billion budget shortfall. His proposal — which drew tens of thousands of demonstrators to the state Capitol for weeks earlier this year — thrust Wisconsin to the forefront of a national debate over labor rights.

But the legal battle was not yet over. A coalition of unions filed a federal lawsuit on Wednesday arguing that the law violated the U.S. Constitution by taking away union rights to bargain, organize and associate and illegally discriminates among classes of public employees. The lawsuit seeks to block portions of the law taking away collective bargaining rights, but allows the higher pension and health care contributions that the unions agreed to take to move forward.

“Scott Walker has created two classes of public sector workers and that is unconstitutional,” said Wisconsin AFL-CIO President Phil Neuenfeldt. “When a legislature discriminates among classes of workers, especially when doing so has more to do with political payback than with any legitimate reasoning, the law has been violated.”

State Department of Justice spokesman Steven Means said he had not seen the lawsuit yet and had no immediate comment. But Walker told reporters the Supreme Court’s decision provided closure and allowed the state to move forward.

“I think overwhelmingly the people around the state believe the legal action is done. It’s time for us to move forward,” Walker said.

Organizations filing the challenge 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.

Walker’s top aide Mike Huebsch, who talked to reporters before the latest lawsuit was filed, said paychecks state workers receive at the end of August will be the first time they see the new higher pension and health care payments.

The Department of Administration, which Huebsch leads, had not done any work implementing the law since a Dane County circuit judge ordered that it be put on hold in April and then voided it in May.

There also has been confusion about when the law would go into effect.

The state Justice Department argued that the law, which Walker signed on March 11, took effect on March 25. The Supreme Court on Wednesday overturned the lower court ruling that voided the law, but it did not directly address when the law took effect.

But Secretary of State Doug La Follette said after consulting with his attorney, he will publish the law on June 28, meaning it will take effect on June 29. La Follette argued that since he never officially published the law, it had not taken effect.

“We’re doing exactly what we would do if a new act came to our office,” La Follette said. “We’re making the assumption the act came to our office today.”

Huebsch said from the state’s perspective, the implementation date didn’t matter because the soonest the concessions could be applied to state workers is late August. But the start date of the law could have a significant impact on any school district or local government that signed contracts with unions after March 25. Some argue that those contracts would be void if they don’t conform the new law.

Attorneys with the Wisconsin Association of School Boards did not immediately return messages seeking comment.

The Justice Department hasn’t decided whether any legal action needs to be taken to clarify the question over the implementation date, Means said.

Associated Press writer Dinesh Ramde contributed to this report.


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