Wisconsin Anti-Union Bill Overturned in Court

Just an hour before teachers in Madison, Wisconsin, rallied Friday in solidarity with Chicago teachers, they learned that their suit to overturn Governor Scott Walker’s anti-union bill had won.

The mood at the rally was “giddy,” said Jim Cavanaugh, who was local central labor council president during last year’s uprising. Madison teachers were in the forefront of opposing the March 2011 law that stripped public employees of their bargaining rights. Alone among Wisconsin employees, they went on strike, for four days, touching off the month-long series of demonstrations that brought hundreds of thousands into the streets.

Their action-taking tradition lives on: The union sent two busloads of members to Chicago Saturday for a rally to support striking teachers there.

Peg Coyne, the Madison teacher who was the named plaintiff in her union’s suit, praised the Chicago union and said, “It is the most gratifying thing to have these two things converge. These two movements here in the Midwest in tandem are getting people to finally listen that educational ‘reform’ is a buzzword for privatizing.”

FREEDOMS VIOLATED

Together with a Milwaukee sanitation workers union, the teachers union had asked a circuit judge to overturn Walker’s law, and on Friday Judge Juan Colas did so, saying it violated municipal and school district employees’ rights of freedom of association and free speech.

John Matthews, executive director of the Madison Teachers union, said the state employees unions had counseled him not to pursue the suit, as a “waste of time and money.” Now unions for public university and state employees may attempt to join onto the case, as the arguments for their rights should parallel those for municipal and school workers.

Colas also said the law violates the constitution’s “equal protection” clause by creating separate classes of state workers—union and non-union—who are treated differently.

Teachers and city workers now have full rights to bargain over conditions of employment—unless another judge puts the decision on hold, as Walker is seeking. The Madison Teachers said they would seek an injunction against such a move.

The victory is by no means assured: Appeals will eventually end up in the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which is dominated by conservatives.

The Madison teachers are one of a number of Wisconsin locals that have contracts in place—having hastily bargained them just before Walker’s bill went through. But Matthews wants to regain some rights given up then, such as preparation periods for elementary teachers.

Art teacher Kati Walsh said, “This is what happens when people stand up to injustices.” Ellen La Luzerne, until recently an organizer for the state teachers union, WEAC, said, “This decision once again brings up serious issues about Scott Walker's ability to govern. He's either too stupid to understand basic constitutional rights or he's complicit in actively undermining our rights under the constitution."

Union attorney Lester Pines said the decision means “unions are back in business, for all business.”