Wisconsin judge strikes down controversial bargaining law

by Simon Benarroch

A Wisconsin judge struck down most of the Gov. Paul Walker's controversial state law that effectively ended collective bargaining rights for most public workers, the Associated Press reported.

Dane County Circuit Judge Juan Colas decided in a 27-page ruling that the law was unconstitutional on state and federal levels. 

Specifically, he said sections of the law "single out and encumber the rights of those employees who choose union membership and representation solely because of that association and therefore infringe upon the rights of free speech and association guaranteed by both the Wisconsin and United States Constitutions."

In response, Walker accused Colas of being a "liberal activist" and expressed his confidence that the ruling would be repealed. He may seek to keep the law in effect as the debate plays itself out, despite union leaders' belief that the ruling sufficed to return their bargaining rights.

Lester Pines, an attorney for Madison Teachers, Inc. — the union that brought the case — said he expected the issue to be resolved by the state supreme court and that "What's going to happen in the interim is unknown."

The decision is likely to reopen old debates. 

When it was top news, the March 2011 law inspired countless opinion pieces. William Cronon of the New York times called Walker's law a "radical break" from what he described as Wisconsin's progressive political traditions. He went so far as to draw parallels between Walker and the infamous Wisconsonian Red Scare icon, Joe McCarthy, though framed his comparison as more relating to his aggressive tactics than his politics. 

Others, like James Sherk, also from the New York Times, emphasized that public bargaining rights are different from public bargaining rights. The distinction is a lynchpin of the pro-Walker argument. Private bargaining rights, they say, are necessary as workers don't elect business owners. Should the workers go on strike, consumers can buy what they need elsewhere, thus putting pressure on the business leaders to give into the workforce. As government workers are paid by taxes, the argument goes, "When government unions strike, they strike against taxpayers." 

Economist Paul Krugman argued in an op-ed that the law wasn't about balancing the budget, but about political power:

"Tellingly, some workers — namely, those who tend to be Republican-leaning — are exempted from the ban; it’s as if Mr. Walker were flaunting the political nature of his actions."

The judge's decision may or may not have been inspired by these arguments, but the ruling itself rested on his constitutional assessment: that the law limited free association by encumbering public workers who choose union membership. 

The Associated Press report on Friday's decision concluded with a quote from Robin Vos, a Republican supporter of the law voicing his confidence that the decision was "out of step with the mainstream," and that they would continue to implement the law.