Wisconsin’s law stripping most public employees of all but a few of their collective bargaining rights does not violate the Constitution, a U.S. district judge ruled Wednesday.
In an opinion in a case filed by Madison and Dane County union workers, U.S. District Judge William Conley wrote that the collective bargaining law, known as Act 10, does not violate the First Amendment because the act does not keep public employees from associating with other unions. It just prohibits local governments, he wrote, from listening to what those unions say.
“Whatever rights public employees have to associate and petition their public employers on wages and conditions of employment, this right certainly does not compel the employer to listen,” according to the judge’s ruling.
Conley also found Act 10 does not violate the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause, writing that government officials have a “rational basis” for treating union employees differently than their nonunion colleagues. In making that finding, Conley cited the state’s argument that the ability to award raises to employees according to their individual performance, rather than according to what a union has bargained for on their behalf, is a good way to manage costs.
Katy Lounsbury, an attorney for the plaintiffs, disagreed with the ruling but said she’d have to consult with her clients about an appeal.
Supporters of Act 10, meanwhile, hailed the decision.
“This case proves, once again, that Act 10 is constitutional in all respects and that the challenges to the law are baseless,” according to a statement attributed to Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen. “I appreciate decisions like this that follow the law, and I look forward to bringing the remaining state court challenges before the Wisconsin Supreme Court, where we expect Act 10 to be upheld once again.”
The challenge to Act 10 was filed by Local 236 of the AFL-CIO and Local 60 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, both based in Dane County, as well as Jamie O’Brien, an employee in Madison’s Public Works Department and a member of Local 236. The defendants named in the case were Gov. Scott Walker and three members of the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission, which helps resolve labor disputes.
In the opinion, Conley declined to rule on issues he said already had been decided in a previous case before the court, Wisconsin Education Association Counsel v. Walker. In that case, the court had struck down an Act 10 provision stipulating that public unions could be certified only if a majority of their members approved the certification in an annual vote. The court also found that the law’s ban on the automatic collection of dues from union members was in violation of the First Amendment.
Both of those rulings were overturned later by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, and Conley wrote that court’s decisions on those legal questions were binding.
A Dane County judge also overturned parts of Act 10 related to workers’ collective bargaining rights. The state Supreme Court has agreed to take up that case.
The Associated Press also contributed to this report.