Wis. employers can impose terms despite ruling

Wisconsin union ruling doesn't mean public workers can force concessions from employers

Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- Wisconsin union leaders scored a win when a Madison judge ordered state labor relations officials to stop enforcing portions of Gov. Scott Walker's collective bargaining restrictions, but it could be a hollow victory, as unions still can't force concessions from the state and the conservative-leaning state Supreme Court could reverse the decision within weeks.

Union attorneys say Dane County Circuit Judge Juan Colas' ruling means school districts and municipal employers must again sit down with unions to discuss wages, hours and workplace conditions. But it doesn't require employers to agree with the unions' proposals and didn't restore the unions' ability to force employers into binding arbitration. Since public unions can't legally strike in Wisconsin, employers could dictate the terms of any new deal.

"That was always our key request, please give us some relief from the arbitration," said Dan Thompson, executive director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities. "If the unions have a right to go to arbitration, the arbitrator can choose the union package. That can cost us more."

Union attorneys and leaders said the ruling at least forces employers back to the bargaining table.

"The big thing is we can at least talk to the employers again," said Rick Badger, the executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 40. "Right now, we had employers who said we'd like to sit down with you but we can't. This at least allows that dialogue. If that happens, good things happen."

Walker, a Republican, proposed a bill in 2011 that stripped most public workers on the state and local levels of almost all of their collective bargaining rights. The plan sparked massive protests at the state Capitol but the GOP-controlled Legislature passed it anyway.

Colas last year found sections of the law unconstitutional as they applied to two unions representing Madison teachers and Milwaukee public workers, including provisions that barred negotiations on workplace conditions and hours, limited bargaining on wage increases to the rate of inflation, outlawed automatic withdrawals of union dues from members' paychecks and required union members to vote annually on whether their wanted their organizations to continue to represent them.

The state has appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court. In the meantime, the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission continued preparations for recertification elections for hundreds of unions next month, arguing that Colas' ruling applied only to the Madison and Milwaukee unions.

Colas ruled Monday those preparations amounted to contempt of court, saying the commission knew his ruling applied statewide. He barred WERC from enforcing the provisions against any local public union.

The ruling doesn't affect state workers. But it means next month's local union recertification elections are off and local government employers must sit down with unions and negotiate in good faith again, said Lester Pines, an attorney for the Madison teachers and the Kenosha Education Association.

The KEA sent a letter to its school district on Tuesday morning seeking to start contract negotiations. A district spokeswoman said Colas' ruling has created confusion about how to proceed with the request and district officials are seeking legal advice.

It wasn't clear Tuesday how many other local union chapters might seek to reopen negotiations. Most teacher unions are still trying to understand Colas' new ruling, said Christina Brey, a spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state's largest teachers union.

Wisconsin Counties Association attorney Andrew Phillips said he thinks some unions will seek to reopen negotiations, but he wasn't sure how many.

Since unions can't force arbitration and can't strike, though, they could be left with the employers' best offers.

"Without a dispute resolution process, the employer is in charge," Pines said.

The Supreme Court could render Colas' ruling moot. Conservative-leaning justices control the court and they've already upheld the bargaining restrictions once, rejecting arguments that Republican lawmakers violated the state's open meeting laws during the run-up to passage.

The court has scheduled oral arguments in the Colas case for Nov. 11. It's unclear when the court might release a decision; the justices face no deadlines. WERC attorney Peter Davis said the commission plans to ask the high court to stay Colas' contempt ruling as well, but it's unclear when the panel might file that request.

"We have an obligation to bargain in good faith," Thompson said, "but it's difficult to bargain when you're not quite sure what the ruling will be ... We are in a very fluid, unsettled legal environment and both sides know that."

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Follow Todd Richmond on Twitter at https://twitter.com/trichmond1

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