Wisconsin’s Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the state’s tough law that hobbled collective bargaining rights for most public employees, a decision that buoys the reelection campaign of Gov. Scott Walker, who used the law to climb to national political prominence.
Walker, embroiled in what the polls say is a close reelection bid, proposed reducing the collective bargain rights as part of an economic reform movement to bring government finances back under control. The effort led to weeks of noisy demonstrations at the Capitol in 2011, the flight of Democratic lawmakers to Illinois in the hope of blocking legislation by denying needed quorums and eventually a statewide recall effort that Walker survived.
In a 5-2 ruling released Thursday, the court upheld Walker’s law which, among other things, prohibits public worker unions from bargaining for anything beyond base wage increases tied to inflation. The latest ruling holds that collective bargaining is not a constitutionally protected practice, meaning the state can choose to modify it as it would through any other law.
“No matter the limitations or 'burdens' a legislative enactment places on the collective bargaining process, collective bargaining remains a creation of legislative grace and not constitutional obligation. The First Amendment cannot be used as a vehicle to expand the parameters of a benefit that it does not itself protect,” Justice Michael Gableman wrote for the majority.
Gableman was joined by Justices David Prosser, Patience Roggensack and Annette Ziegler. Justice N. Patrick Crooks concurred but wrote separately. Dissenting were Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson and Justice Ann Walsh Bradley.
In a statement, Walker, who is also a potential aspirant for the 2016 GOP national ticket, touted his victory which the state maintains has allowed sizable cost savings through cuts in public employee benefits, and changes to insurance and some work rules, including overtime.
“Act 10 has saved Wisconsin taxpayers more than $3 billion,” Walker stated. “Today's ruling is a victory for those hard-working taxpayers.”
The current lawsuit was brought on behalf of some public employee unions which argued that the law violated their members’ rights.
Walker introduced his bill shortly after taking office in 2011. The move also led to efforts in other Midwestern states, run by Republicans, to curb the power of unions, often allied with Democrats.
The unions and Democrats, after losing on policy, fought back, hoping to win politically. By 2012, Walker had been pushed into a recall election against the same candidate he had defeated earlier. In the June 2012 special election, Walker again triumphed and became the first governor to survive a recall election.
This isn't the first time that a higher court has considered a challenge. The U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld Act 10 in its entirety in two challenges in federal court.
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