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Dane County Judge Strikes Down Elements of Wisconsin Act 10

Dane County Judge Strikes Down Elements of Wisconsin Act 10

Dane County Judge Strikes Down Elements of Wisconsin Act 10

MADISON — A Dane County judge ruled Wednesday that provisions of Act 10 — the Scott Walker-era law that severely curbed the influence of unions, sparked massive protests and reshaped Wisconsin’s political climate for years to come — were unlawful and denied a motion to dismiss a case challenging the law.

Several unions representing public employees filed the lawsuit in November 2023, citing a “desperate situation” at workplaces with problems including low wages, staff shortages and poor working conditions. In May, Dane County Circuit Judge Jacob Frost considered a motion by the state Legislature to dismiss the case, promising a ruling “in the near future.”

The lawsuit claims that the 2011 law violates the state Constitution’s equal protection guarantees by dividing public employees into two classes: “general” and “public safety” employees. Public safety employees are exempt from the collective bargaining limitations imposed on “general” public employees.

“Rational basis review provides a simple premise. Can a statute’s differential treatment of different groups be explained in a way that makes sense and supports public policy? If not, then the differential treatment is unreasonable and violates the right to equal protection of the laws. For no one could provide this Court with an explanation that reasonably demonstrates why municipal police, firefighters, and state troopers are considered public safety employees, but Capitol Police, University of Wisconsin Police, and park rangers, who have the same authority and do the same job, are not,” Frost wrote in his ruling.

“Therefore, the Capitol Police, the University of Wisconsin Police, and the park rangers are treated unequally without any rational basis for that difference. Act 10 therefore violates their rights to equal protection under the law, and I declare the Act’s provisions relating to collective bargaining amendments to be unconstitutional and void.”

The plaintiffs include the Abbotsford Education Association; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Locals 47 and 1215; the Beaver Dam Education Association; AFSCME Local 1215 Ranger and President Ben Gruber; Beaver Dam teacher Matthew Ziebarth; SEIU Wisconsin; Racine Unified School District employee Wayne Rasmussen; the Association of Teaching Assistants Local 3220; and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 695.

Attorneys for the state Justice Department and the Legislature did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The outcome of the Dane County court case is certain to be appealed and likely go all the way to the state Supreme Court.

Act 10 ended the ability of public sector unions to negotiate anything other than wage increases, and those increases were limited to the rate of inflation. In addition, unions were required to hold annual elections to maintain their ability to negotiate those increases. For those elections, they had to win a majority of all eligible members, not just those who cast votes.

Public workers who earned $50,000 a year saw their take-home pay drop by about 8.5 percent because they had to pay more for benefits, according to an analysis at the time by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Office.

Four years after the passage of Act 10, Republicans passed a right-to-work law that limited the power of private-sector unions.

A 2022 analysis by the Wisconsin Policy Forum found that since 2000, no state has seen a larger decline in the share of its workforce that is unionized than Wisconsin — a significant development in the state that served as the birthplace of AFSCME and was the first to allow public-sector unions to negotiate contracts in 1959.

The law’s passage triggered a wave of recall elections. Walker, its architect, became the first governor in U.S. history to survive a recall process, and former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch became the first lieutenant governor to face one, as well as the first to survive one.

Thirteen state senators faced recall proceedings under Act 10: ten Republicans and three Democrats. Most of the incumbent senators won, but Democrats managed to unseat three Republicans. That was enough to give them control of the Senate in the summer of 2012, but the victory came when the Legislature was out of session and was short-lived. Republicans regained the majority that fall.

The attention generated by Act 10 turned Walker into a national Republican figure, giving him the opportunity to launch a presidential bid. For weeks, he led in polls among conservatives, but quickly abandoned his campaign after Donald Trump’s popularity among Republicans took off.

Previous legal challenges to the law have failed, but this lawsuit was filed months after liberal state Supreme Court Justice Janet Protasiewicz was sworn in, flipping the high court’s majority for the first time in years. Unions at the state and national level contributed more than $560,000 to Protasiewicz’s campaign and the Wisconsin Democratic Party, not taking into account individual contributions made by members.

In March, Protasiewicz told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial board that he would consider recusing himself from cases involving Act 10 because of his opposition to the law, including his participation in protests in 2011 and signing a petition to recall Walker.

“I would have to think about it,” Protasiewicz said. “Given that I participated in the demonstration and that I signed the impeachment petition, would I recuse myself? Maybe. Maybe. But I don’t know for sure.”

Lawyers arguing for the dismissal of the lawsuit stressed that Act 10 has withstood previous challenges. The Republican-led Legislature argued that the case should be dismissed because of the failures of previous challenges.

Republicans have touted the law’s savings and said it gave elected officials and the public more control over their government, while Democrats have argued it hurts schools and decimates employee morale by stripping teachers, corrections officers and others of the ability to help decide their working conditions.

Frost concluded his order with the following: “Since my decision appears to resolve all issues, I direct the parties to submit a letter or memorandum to the Court regarding whether the Court should rule on the pleadings in light of this Decision or take some other action to bring this action to a final judgment. As part of that discussion, Plaintiffs should address which sections of Act 10 should be severed and stricken pursuant to my ruling, and Defendants should respond to this issue as well.”

This story will be updated.

Jessie Opoien can be reached at [email protected]. You can contact Laura Schulte at [email protected].