Union coalition sues to toss Wisconsin’s infamous ‘Act 10’
Kathryn Schulze wears a message taped over her mouth inside the State Capitol Monday, Feb 21, 2011 in Madison, Wisc. Some 125,000 opponents to Gov. Scott Walker's bill eliminating collective bargaining rights for state workers marched and many also occupied the building for more than a week. The late Richard Trumka, then president of the AFL-CIO, led the marchers and joined in the occupation. | Jeffrey Phelps/AP

MADISON, Wis.—Remember Wisconsin’s infamous Act 10?

That was the law union-hating Republican Gov. Scott Walker pushed through a radical right Republican legislature—as a budget bill (!)—in 2011.

It endangered enormous protests, with more than 125,000 unionists and their allies parading through snowy downtown Madison, the state capital, in 25-degree-below-zero temperatures. Led by then-AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, they not only ringed the state Capitol building, they occupied it for days.

Their point: Walker, violating the state constitution, demanded to emasculate public sector unions in various ways, from a minimum yearly recertification rule of needing votes of 51 percent of all members to yanking union dues checkoff and restricting those unions that qualified to bargaining over wages annually and capped by the Consumer Price Index–and nothing else.

Of course, if your union was one of five that backed Walker in the election the year before, and those were cop “unions,” you weren’t subject to the same strictures.

Despite the protests and the national publicity they produced, Walker got Act 10, which other anti-union rightists used as a model in following years, and public workers got the shaft. Now a group of locals and individual workers, led by two AFSCME locals and SEIU Wisconsin, are trying to erase it from the books—in court.

In a suit filed in Dane County (Madison) Circuit Court, the unions charge the law is blatantly discriminatory, depending on which type of union you belong to, violates the state constitution’s equal protection of the laws and makes public-sector unionists in the Badger State the equivalent of second-class citizens.

Gerrymandered districts hindered action

Unlike a decade ago, they haven’t tried to argue these points in the even more-gerrymandered Republican legislature. “The Court must review the political retribution imposed by Act 10,” their suit says—and stop it with a permanent injunction.

Then they gave examples of its impact. Some were:

“AFSCME Local 47 advocates for employees of the City of Milwaukee Department of Public Works and Department of Neighborhood Services, including inspectors who monitor and ensure compliance with city rules and regulations. These public servants are classified as ‘general’”—second-class—“employees under Act 10,” the suit explains. They can’t even bargain over pensions and health care.

“Local 47 is continuously working with city employees to raise issues with their employer, including by advocating for a fair grievance procedure, fighting outsourcing of city services to unaccountable corporations, advocating for fair wage increases, addressing unsafe working conditions–including preventable deaths of inspectors on the job–protecting employee retirement security, and investing in public services. But the inability to collectively bargain over these and other subjects under Act 10 has hindered these employees’ ability to improve their working conditions and resolve unfair treatment.”

The other AFSCME Local, 1215, and its president, Ben Gruber, represents state conservation wardens. They too are “general employees,” unlike colleagues in other law enforcement unions which backed Walker. “These conservation wardens are public safety employees in every sense of the word but are not considered ‘public safety’ employees under Act 10,” it says.

Despite Act 10, which restricts the local only to bargaining annually over pay, Local 1215 has grown from eight members to 60 since the start of the year. It can raise issues—“sexual harassment and gender discrimination, excessive and retaliatory discipline, lack of accountability for managers who engage in unwarranted adverse employment actions and other toxic work environment issues.

“Nevertheless, their inability under Act 10 to collectively bargain over these and other subjects greatly hindered these public servants’ ability to address management’s mistreatment of employees.”

And after a decade of passing recertification under the law’s tough rules, one small teachers union local lost. It always got more than 51 percent of all members’ votes, until last year. Then, 30 members voted “yes” and 29 didn’t vote. “Yes” got 50.8 percent—not enough.

The distinctions between unions and workers are so bad, they’re unconstitutional, the coalition told the court. They want a permanent injunction halting and rolling back the discrimination of Act 10.

No date has been set for a hearing on the case.

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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.