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Court of Appeals weighs in on collective bargaining

The Wisconsin Court of Appeals again has tried to shed light on the ramifications of state laws that severely limit collective bargaining rights for public sector employees.

The court, in a decision released Wednesday attributed to Chief Judge Richard Brown, said union contracts with state and municipal entities that were forged before Acts 10 and 32 – yet began after the laws went into effect in June 2011 – are not affected by the new laws.

The case in question revolved around the city of Racine’s attempt to rescind a contract with the unions representing more than 500 of the city’s firefighters and police officers, as well as its state and county employees.

Racine County Circuit Judge Gerald Ptacek ruled in favor of the unions in January, and the appellate court upheld Ptacek’s decision.

“… the legislation was not designed,” the appellate court wrote, “to retroactively invalidate [collective bargaining agreements] that were freely and voluntarily entered into by governmental entities and public section unions before the acts took effect.”

Timothy Hawks, an attorney with Hawks Quindel SC who represented the unions, said Wednesday that “obviously our clients are gratified to know that their collective bargaining agreements … are fully enforceable.”

The opinion, which also was decided by Judges Paul Reilly and Mark Gundrum, shot down most claims made by the city, including that the contracts were invalid because they were not in effect by June 2011.

Gundrum, in a separate concurring opinion, also explained that he is confident the legislature knew that many entities often negotiate and approve more than one contract at a time. Still, he explained, lawmakers “chose not to clearly specify whether the acts were intended to apply to such agreements.”

It was not immediately clear if the city planned to petition the state Supreme Court to review the case. A call left with Mark Olson, an attorney with Buelow Vetter Buikema Olson & Vliet LLC who is representing the city, was not immediately returned.

The newest decision is just one of several released in recent months by the state and federal appellate courts. The state Supreme Court heard oral arguments last week on the constitutionality of Act 10, and is expected to release a decision some time next year.

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