Baylor Spears, Wisconsin Examiner
December 1, 2023
A group of unions representing public employees including teachers filed a lawsuit on Thursday challenging Wisconsin Act 10, which stripped collective bargaining rights from most public employees in the state.
Former Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed the law in 2011 despite some of the largest protests in state history, and the law has since shaped the state’s political landscape.
The lawsuit, which was filed in Dane County Circuit Court, argues that Act 10 violates the equal protection guarantee in the Wisconsin Constitution by dividing public employees into “general” and “public safety” employees.
Employees within the “public safety” category — including police and firefighters who supported Walker — retained many of their bargaining rights, while “general” employees lost them with respect to hours and conditions of employment.
Under the law, wage bargaining for “general” employees was limited to base wages — excluding overtime, premium pay, merit pay, performance pay and other compensation — and raises were capped at the rate of inflation. Wage agreements reached are limited to the duration of one year. The law also requires annual recertification elections and prohibits dues deductions from union members’ paychecks that go directly to the union.
The lawsuit makes the case that disparate treatment of public unions tracks closely with political endorsements made during the campaign cycle that led to Walker’s election, noting that only five public employee unions and associations publicly endorsed Walker and each was placed in the “public safety” category. It also notes that not every employee that serves in a public safety capacity, including University of Wisconsin Police, Wisconsin Capitol Police, conservation wardens, state probation and parole officers, is included in that separate category.
The lawsuit argues that the courts must review the “political retribution” imposed by Act 10.
“Act 10’s fundamental changes to Wisconsin’s decades-old collective bargaining law have made it much more difficult for public servants in the state to exercise their rights to organize into unions and bargain collectively to achieve better terms and conditions of employment,” the lawsuit states.
Conservation warden Ben Gruber, who is the president of AFSCME Local 1215 and one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said in a statement that he worked as a firefighter paramedic for 13 years during which time he had the freedom to negotiate.
“When I became law enforcement for the Department of Natural Resources, I immediately lost my right to a voice on the job,” Gruber said. “We are an essential part of our state’s public safety system, often working in dangerous conditions and making arrests miles away from any backup. We are certified as law enforcement by the same state board, but my co-workers and I are denied the same union rights enjoyed by other public safety personnel. It’s time that public sector workers across Wisconsin have our freedoms restored to us.”
Other plaintiffs in the case include Abbotsford Education Association; American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Local 47; AFSCME Local 1215; Beaver Dam teacher Matthew Ziebarth; SEIU Wisconsin; Teaching Assistants’ Association Local 3220; and International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 695.
“For over a decade, the deck has been stacked against educators like me. Teachers and support staff work in partnership with parents to teach students about compromise and collaboration, but school districts aren’t required to do the same,” Betsy Ramsdale, a teacher and co-president of the Beaver Dam Education Association said. “It’s frustrating and demoralizing, and a huge reason Wisconsin doesn’t have enough staff to meet student needs.”
Wisconsin legislative leaders reacted to the lawsuit on Thursday.
“The repeal of Act 10 would bankrupt schools and local governments right after we gave them a historic funding increase,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) said in a social media post. “This is another attempt by liberal special interest groups to undo the law to please their donors now that there’s been a shift in the court.”
Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard (D-Madison) said in a statement that she was “glad that the constitutionality of that law will be reexamined in the courts.”
“Should Act 10 be ruled unconstitutional, Wisconsinites who have dedicated their lives to public service will once again have a seat at the table that is well-deserved and long overdue,” Agard said.