Wis. judge strikes down law curbing collective bargaining for public workers

September 14, 2012

A Wisconsin judge on Friday struck aside a law signed by Gov. Scott Walker (R) that curbed collective bargaining for most public employees, thrusting a contentious issue that spurred historic recall elections back into the spotlight less than two months before Election Day.


(J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Dane County Circuit Court Judge Juan Colas ruled that the law violates both the state and U.S. Constitution and runs afoul of free speech and association rights, the Associated Press reported.

The judge's decision is at least a temporary blow to Walker, who on Friday swiftly criticized the ruling, but also expressed confidence the state would successfully appeal it.

"The people of Wisconsin clearly spoke on June 5th," said Walker. "Now, they are ready to move on. Sadly a liberal activist judge in Dane County wants to go backwards and take away the lawmaking responsibilities of the legislature and the governor. We are confident that the state will ultimately prevail in the appeals process."

The measure struck down by the judge was the centerpiece of Walker's early legislative agenda and its passage was largely responsible for triggering a tumultuous political climate in the Badger State throughout much of 2011 and 2012.

Following his election in 2010, Walker, with the help of Republican majorities in the state legislature, spearheaded what he dubbed a "budget control" measure that would later come to be know as Act 10. The measure included a provision curbing collective bargaining for most public employees. The bill was passed, and Walker subsequently signed it into law over impassioned protests by labor activists who stormed the state capital in early 2011.

Liberal activists didn't end their fight against Walker there. Later that year, they triggered recall elections for Republican state senators that served as a new battleground in the fight between labor and its allies and the governor. Democrats picked up two seats in the process, but fell one pickup short of seizing back control of the upper chamber.

They continued to take their fight to Walker in 2012 when they forced him into a recall election. Walker survived the effort to remove him from office in a June election, turning back a challenge from Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, the Democrat he defeated in a 2010 open race. Walker's win was viewed as a major blow to the public unions who spent millions trying to remove him from office.

If Friday's ruling is successfully appealed and the law stands, it will be a victory for Republicans, who fought hard for its implementation. If Friday's ruling is upheld, it will be a victory for organized labor, which was dealt some high-profile defeats during the recall campaigns.

The Wisconsin chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees celebrated the ruling and sought to frame it as a clear rebuke to Walker.

“Today, Governor Scott Walker was rejected by the courts again," said AFSCME Council 48 Executive Director Rich Abelson. "Today’s ruling shows that his attempt to steal the rights away from working men and women in Wisconsin was unconstitutional.  We have always believed that Governor Walker and the state legislature overstepped their authority by taking away the rights of public employees to collectively bargain,”

The ruling comes as Republicans and Democrats begin to dig in for the final seven weeks of the campaign in Wisconsin, which is playing host to competitive races for the Senate and the presidency. A Republican presidential nominee has not carried the state since 1984, but recent polling  suggests it could be in play this fall. Friday's ruling could reignite the debate over collective bargaining on the campaign trail.

"It certainly revives an issue that was at the core of the recall," said Marquette University pollster and political scientist Charles Franklin.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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Sean Sullivan | September 14, 2012