Labor takes fight against the right into the courts

Labor’s fight against the radical Right isn’t just occurring in the streets or at the ballot box. Unions are challenging the Right Wing’s schemes in court, too.

And those challenges, in Wisconsin, Indiana, Alabama, Michigan, and elsewhere, show once again that court rulings are important to workers and their allies.

The court cases in those states have split: Workers won in federal court in Alabama and state court in Michigan, lost in state court in Wisconsin but have taken the case to federal court there, and await a local court hearing date in Indiana.

But beating back the right-wing-GOP-business cabal’s scheme to strip workers of their rights isn’t the only legal battlefield workers are playing on – just the main one:

In Wisconsin, GOP Gov. Scott Walker’s law stripping 200,000 state and local government workers of their collective bargaining rights was briefly delayed by a Dane County (Madison) Circuit Court judge, who ruled the Wisconsin legislature violated its own open meetings rules in jamming the measure through.

The state Supreme Court overturned her decision, reinstating Walker’s law and prompting the state AFL-CIO, three AFSCME councils, the Service Employees, and state affiliates of the Teachers and the National Education Association to sue in federal court on June 15 to overturn Walker’s law on constitutional grounds. They said the law violated both the freedom of speech of the 1st Amendment and equal protection of the laws of the 14th.

In Alabama, federal judges have stopped the state ban on deducting union dues from any union-covered state and local worker’s paycheck if the union spends even voluntary contributions on politics. The suit, by the Fire Fighters and Teachers, is designed to prevent a crippling blow to their local unions. Again, the GOP governor pushed the ban through the GOP-dominated state legislature – with the Alabama Education Association, the state’s biggest union and a mainstay of the Democratic Party, as their target. The AEA also sued to overturn the law.

In Indiana, AFSCME Council 62 sued GOP Gov. Mitch Daniels, in Marion County (Indianapolis) Circuit Court on Aug. 26, seeking to overturn his state budget law that makes collective bargaining between the state and any union – except for the one representing state police – illegal. Daniels’ law reversed 16 years’ worth of collective bargaining rights under the prior three governors.

The council, which represents 3,600 workers, said that the budget law violates the state constitution’s separation of powers. “The executive branch of government has jurisdiction over administrative procedures and employee/employer relations – not the legislative branch, which passed the new law,” AFSCME said.

“It’s been well established that administration of state employees is the role and responsibility of the executive branch of Indiana government,” said Council 62 Executive Director David Warrick. “This law is an attempt to blindside established precedence and leave state employees with no ability to enjoy the same rights of a private employee.”

In Michigan, the Auto Workers have already won one key case against the Right’s attempt to cut workers’ pay and pensions. On Aug. 25, the state Court of Appeals threw out Michigan’s 2010 law – approved under then-Gov.

Jennifer Granholm (D) – ordering that an additional 3 percent of all state workers’ pay be deducted from their checks to fund state retiree health care. UAW Local 6000, which represents 17,000 state workers, helped lead the fight.

The court said Michigan voters amended the constitution to put state employee compensation – including pay and pensions – in the hands of the state Civil Service Commission. When the 2010 legislature mandated state worker pay be “redirected” to fund current state retiree health care benefits, it violated the constitution.

“The people can and should expect shared sacrifice” in bad budget times, the court said. “However, it cannot come at the expense of constitutional nullification, and the legislature cannot expect to balance the budget on the backs of state workers.”

“This decision is on target and shows the Michigan legislature’s end-runs around the Michigan Constitution to erode state employee compensation won’t be tolerated,” said UAW Public Sector Vice President Cindy Estrada.

On June 22, the Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice sued to overturn the GOP-passed governmental takeover law. It sailed through the GOP-run Michigan legislature in 2011, and was signed by GOP Gov. Rick Snyder, a former corporate mogul who vigorously pushed it. The new law lets Michigan declare any local government body “financially failing,” and appoint a receiver. Under the new law, the receiver (read: “dictator”) could abolish union contracts, fire workers, cut pay, sell assets to private firms, or do anything he or she pleased.

Not surprisingly, the new law has been applied to the city of Benton Harbor, and the Detroit public schools. Both had been under state control under an old, milder law, which Granholm invoked. Both have union workforces; both are, in their majority, African-American. The receiver in Detroit fired every teacher and all school staffers – virtually all of them unionists. Benton Harbor’s czar killed union contracts.

Photo: People’s World Flickr photo stream.



Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.