Huffpost Politics

Wisconsin Collective Bargaining Ruling Causes Confusion

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MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin school and government employee unions on Monday were considering whether to seek new contract talks after a state court threw out a controversial law that restricts public workers' collective bargaining rights.

At least one major union representing about 4,700 teachers in Madison said it will demand new contract negotiations, while others said they were weighing their options.

A Dane County judge ruled Friday that the law, passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature in 2011, violates the school and local employees' constitutional rights to free speech, free association and equal representation. Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen said he will ask a court on Tuesday to put the ruling on hold while he prepares an appeal.

The law, championed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker to address budget problems, has been the focal point of a broader clash between conservatives and unions over worker rights.

The ruling came in one of a number of lawsuits that are expected to determine the legality of curtailing employees' collective bargaining.

The law limits bargaining on wage increases to the rate of inflation. Other issues, such as workplace safety, vacation and health benefits, were excluded from collective bargaining.

Unions covered by contracts reached under the new law are considering whether to demand negotiations now that the law has been struck down. But the prospects for new action may remain unclear for some time as the appeals courts consider how to handle the legal challenges and lower court decisions.

"There are hundreds of questions about what this means for local school districts at this time and I don't think anybody has the answers," said Miles Turner, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators. "This is going to take some time."

John Matthews, the Madison teachers union's executive director, said the district should begin talks immediately on a two-year contract that would take effect starting July 1, 2013.

"There is time now where it's legal for the school district to bargain with us," Matthews said. His union represents about 4,700 employees in the Madison district, the state's second largest with about 27,000 students.

The district's superintendent, Jane Belmore, said the board of education will discuss the issue Monday night. The state's largest teachers' union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, advised its local affiliates to act in its members best interests.

Van Hollen, who derided the ruling as "woefully legally deficient," said he had not decided whether he will ask the state's conservative-leaning Supreme Court to take the case directly, rather than have it go to the appeals court first.

Legal experts said they expect higher courts to stay the Dane County ruling.

"I would be shocked if it was not granted so that all these bargaining units don't have to deal with the fallout while it's in litigation," said Janine Geske, a former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice who is now a law professor at Marquette University.

Paul Secunda, a labor law professor at Marquette, said the beginning collective bargaining now would create "mass confusion."

The Dane County ruling said that capping union workers' raises but not those of their nonunion counterparts was unconstitutional. The suit, filed by the Madison teachers union, applied to local and school employees, but not those employed by the state or the University of Wisconsin System.

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