Unions take fight vs. Walker bill to federal court

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MADISON, Wis. - The Wisconsin AFL-CIO and a group of unions here filed a federal lawsuit June 15 to halt Republican Gov. Scott Walker's law that kills collective bargaining rights for public workers. The filing took place shortly after the Wisconsin Supreme Court, in a party-line 4-3 ruling, allowed the law to take effect.

Unions and their allies say the union-busting law, officially called the Budget Repair Bill, is unconstitutional.

"Not only have Scott Walker and his deep-pocketed corporate allies sought to silence the voices of Wisconsin workers, they have also violated those workers' constitutional rights," declared Wisconsin State AFL-CIO President Phil Neuenfeldt.

The lawsuit filed by the unions notes that Walker's law destroys collective bargaining rights for all but a select group of public-sector workers (police and firefighters).

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

In a statement the unions that filed the lawsuit said the bill also violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution by stripping away basic rights to bargain, organize and associate for the purpose of engaging in union activity - rights that have been in place in Wisconsin for the past half century.

The suit by the unions seeks to halt the collective bargaining provision of the law but does not seek to reverse the increased pension and health insurance requirements for public workers contained in the bill.

"Public sector unions have made it clear from day one that Wisconsin workers would do their part to share in the sacrifice and keep our state moving forward," said Neuenfeldt. "The lawsuit only seeks to preserve the basic right to bargain and freely associate."

Unions joining in the lawsuit include the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Councils 24, 40 and 48; the American Federation of Teachers; the Wisconsin Education Association Council; the Wisconsin State Employees Union; and the Service Employees International Union, Health Care Wisconsin.

Before filing the suit Neuenfeldt blasted the Wisconsin Supreme Court for its inability "to separate partisan politics from the well-being of Wisconsinites." He described the decision as "the latest indication that citizens do not have a voice in this state." He called on voters to turn out this summer for recall elections against six Republican state senators who backed the Walker bill.

Walker's introduction of the bill triggered a massive uprising that saw hundreds of thousands descend on the Capitol here in protests. Republicans rammed the bill through anyway, in violation of the state's open notices requirements.

Circuit Court Judge Maryanne Sumi, herself a Republican appointee, halted the law in a ruling that said the bill was adopted in violation of the state's Open Meetings Act. The state Supreme Court decision Wednesday overturned Sumi's injunction, reinstating the law.

"This [state Supreme Court] ruling is an affront to our democracy," said Neuenfeldt.  "Green lighting the sort of shady, backroom tactics Walker used to ram his extreme budget through the legislature sets a dangerous precedent for the future of our state. Democracy is the system by which all people, not just the corporations and the wealthy, have a seat at the table. This ruling shows that Wisconsin Republicans do not believe in a functioning, sound democracy."

The GOP majority on the state Supreme Court avoided any mention of the issues being raised by the bill's opponents.

Instead, criticizing Circuit Court Judge Sumi for blocking the bill, the majority wrote, "One of the courts that we are charged with supervising has usurped the legislative power which the Wisconsin Constitution grants exclusively to the legislature."

The Republican justices claimed that in a 1943 case their court decided that "the judicial department has no jurisdiction or right to interfere with the legislative process."

Justice David Prosser, a Walker ally who is leading in a disputed election for the court's swing seventh seat, told unions and their allies not to bother challenging Walker's law after its reinstatement.

"Attacking the constitutionality of an act after it has been published is quite different from attacking its validity before it becomes law. This must be acknowledged," Prosser wrote in a separate concurring opinion.

He added, "No useful purpose would be served by inviting a new series of challenges to 2011 Wisconsin Act 10 after publication of the act has been completed."

Prosser's statement evidently failed to sway Wisconsin's labor movement, as they wasted no time in filing their challenge.

Photo: Rally at the state Capitol protesting the Walker budget, June 14 in Madison, Wis. Wisconsin AFL-CIO 

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