Worker rights fight not over yet in Wisconsin


A victory for sunshine in Wisconsin, transparency in government and the nation’s labor movement, was reinforced May 26 when a Wisconsin judge said the state’s GOP-run legislature violated Wisconsin’s Sunshine/ Open Meetings Law in passing Governor Scott Walker’s law stripping state and local workers of collective bargaining rights. The judge invalidated Walker’s law.

Ironically, the decision by Dane County (Madison) Circuit Court Judge Maryann Sumi – a Republican appointee years ago – will force Walker’s attack on public workers out of judicial limbo and will probably goad the state GOP legislative majority into trying to eliminate public worker bargaining rights forever.

That may send hundreds of thousands of unionists back into the streets again.

“What we’ve seen from the beginning in Wisconsin is an arrogant disregard for the voices of working people,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said. “Walker and the Republicans may forge ahead to undermine middle-class families, voting rights and more. But they will not be able to do it without full and close scrutiny.”

Walker’s law is important because it is the spearhead for the nationwide Big Business-Radical Right-GOP campaign to strip workers of their rights and trash unions, while also depriving unionists and their allies, in some cases, even of the right to vote.

That business drive manifests itself in states from Wisconsin to Ohio – where GOP Gov. John Kasich stripped all 400,000 state and local workers of b bargaining rights and outlawed organizing rights for home health care workers – to Tennessee to New Hampshire. Its GOP-run legislature passed a right-to-work law. Democratic Gov. John Lynch vetoed it and the state AFL-CIO is trying to uphold his veto.

And the Right Wing push has in turn galvanized unionists nationwide to campaign to protect themselves, and to enlist their neighbors, civil rights groups and community groups in the crusade, too.

In Wisconsin, Sumi’s ruling means Walker and the GOP will try to again yank collective bargaining rights through a separate piece of legislation. They hope speed, confusion and the blizzard of complex budget bills now moving in the legislature will let their do-over escape the clamor that brought hundreds of thousands to the state capitol and that continues to roil Wisconsin’s streets with rallies, petitions and political activity.

Walker’s law criminalized public worker collective bargaining for anything other than wages, and limiting wage bargaining to the inflation rate. But Sumi’s decision had nothing to do with the contents of Walker’s anti-worker law. Instead, it focused on how the legislature made an idiot of itself by violating the state’s Open Meetings Law in passing Walker’s measure.

National union leaders hailed the judge’s ruling, with few comments on the following steps, including an appeal to the state supreme court and any possible attempt to rush through a replacement anti-worker law before scheduled July 12 recall elections of up to nine state senators, including six Republicans. The GOP holds the Wisconsin Senate 19-14.

Sumi’s was a pragmatic reading of basic statutes that focused on whether the clear violation of the open meeting law happened blatantly and was enough to undo the sudden passage of the bill last March. It was, she ruled, turning her temporary injunction into a permanent one blocking the implementation of the law but leaving the legislature free, as it had always been, for a do-over, legally, if it has the votes.

Sumi’s reasoning emphasized basic judicial courage: When two laws appear in conflict, the courts must decide, and that is particularly important when the case involves controversial matters.

She also took state GOP officials, including the attorney general, to the woodshed for “the flawed reasoning” of the GOP majority’s defense and pointed out many essential violations that prevented constitutionally required sunshine. Sumi noted how a hasty private meeting, complete with quorum and discussions before the bill was passed, was yet more evidence of how an “evasion of law” was the intent.

“The legislature and its committees are bound to comply with the open meetings law by their own choice…They cannot now shield themselves from the provisions that give the law force and effect,” the judge wrote.

There’s been a lot of GOP dancing and ducking to justify their behavior, noted Chris Ahmuty, executive director of the Wisconsin ACLU, evaluating her ruling. “But whatever happens now, the GOP majority cannot hide from the simple fact that they broke the law,” he said. One corporate lawyer added, “Whatever the political consequence, it was a mainstream call.”

Sumi’s ruling – and Walker’s law – are headed for the state Supreme Court and attorneys said she aimed her decision right at it, to remind the judges of the importance of the open meetings statute, by quoting the conservative judges on the tribunal.

But the decision was also the forceful reminder pointed out by state AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Stephanie Bloomingdale: “This is a democracy, not a dictatorship, and Judge Sumi’s decision makes it final that the union busting bill was passed illegally and will not stand.”

Politically, union leaders also said Walker’s frontal attack on union rights could have the same impact on coming elections as another overreach by another Wisconsin Republican: House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s plan to turn Medicare into a voucher system. The GOP is running away from that, and it lost a safe New York congressional seat on May 24 because of it.

Meanwhile, even conservative communities in Wisconsin are scrambling to make deals with their local union workers because they figure they can do better without Walker’s union-stripping law than with it. A similar situation is occurring in Massachusetts, where communities and local unions are racing to rework health care in union contracts before the legislature there approves a proposal to yank collective bargaining on that issue.

Dominique Paul Noth edits The Milwaukee Labor Press.