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Divided Wisconsin Supreme Court Upholds Collective-Bargaining Restraints

June 15, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled 4-3 to uphold a controversial law, backed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker, to deny some public workers their right to collective bargaining. Judy Woodruff discusses what's ahead in the ongoing legal and political battles with Wisconsin Public TV's Adam Schrager, who's been covering the story.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And now, what’s next in Wisconsin following a major battle and now a court decision over collective bargaining and unions.

It was a sharply divided Wisconsin State Supreme Court that revived the new law stripping most public workers of many of their collective bargaining rights. The 4-3 decision, released Tuesday night, overruled a lower court that had voided the law. At issue was whether Republicans gave proper notice of this state Senate committee meeting in early march as they pushed the bill to passage.

Democrats condemned the Supreme Court decision, while Republican hailed it.

JEFF FITZGERALD, (R) Wisconsin State Assembly speaker: We always felt that we followed our rules the way we normally do and that we never violated the constitution. And that’s what the court felt as well.

PETER BARCA, (D) Wisconsin State Assembly minority leader: I was actually very shocked and certainly extremely disappointed with this ruling by our Supreme Court. Essentially, what the Supreme Court has now vested as part of Wisconsin is that the legislature is above the law.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The decision was a signal victory for Republican Gov. Scott Walker. He had insisted the state needed to control labor costs to combat a projected budget shortfall of $3.6 billion over two years. But when it was introduced earlier this year, his proposal drew thousands of protesters to the state capitol in Madison.

They opposed giving up their bargaining rights. The bill also mandated they pay for a greater share of their health care and pension benefits. All 14 Democratic state senators fled to next-door Illinois to leave the Senate short of a quorum and thus prevent a vote. Ultimately, Republicans reconfigured the bill to permit a vote with fewer members present.

The law is now set to take effect on June 29. And Gov. Walker said last night he hopes the state can move forward together. But more legal challenges are expected. And a number of state senators, six Republicans and three Democrats, face recall elections in August. The outcomes could give Democrats control of the state Senate, and thus a chance to try to repeal the new law.

More now on what’s next with this law and the continuing fallout.

Adam Schrager has been covering this for Wisconsin Public TV, and he joins us from Madison.

Adam Schrager, thank you for being with us.

First of all, let’s talk about the legal aspects here. On what ground did the state Supreme Court in Wisconsin uphold the law?

ADAM SCHRAGER, Wisconsin Public Television: Thank you very much for having me, Judy.

It’s important to point out that the Supreme Court yesterday here in Wisconsin ruled on the process that led up to this law, not on the policy itself. What they basically ruled was that there was a separation of powers and, as long as the legislature believed it was within its proper roles as far as posting this message and posting this — the meeting that led to this law, that being two hours of giving public notice — it was televised, the hearing that led to the passage of this law — as long as that was taken care of, they felt, the court — the majority of the court ruled that they had, in fact, taken care of the open-meetings law here in the state of Wisconsin.

The policy side of this is now what’s going to be challenged, as a coalition of unions today filed suit in federal court, claiming that it discriminates against certain classes of public workers, in that it doesn’t include all public workers. Specifically, police officers and firefighters were exempted from the measure. So, that’s now going to handle and deal with the policy side of this question.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I want to ask you about that challenge in just a moment.

But, first, let me ask you. OK, the law takes effect at the end of the month of June. What effect is it expected to have?

ADAM SCHRAGER: The administration today said that it wasn’t going to retroactively dock workers’ pay for the increased pension contributions, the increased health care contributions. They hope to actually put this into effect, from a practical standpoint, nearly the end of August.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so — but there will be cuts — workers — state workers, will see cuts, some will, in their paychecks?

ADAM SCHRAGER: State workers and public service workers are going to end up having to pay an additional roughly six percent into their pensions, an additional 12 percent into their health care. So, that will start to be deducted from their paychecks at the end of August.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what about in terms of limited collective bargaining rights? Is there any understanding or sense at this point of what — of how that could play out?

ADAM SCHRAGER: Well, basically, as it stands right now, under Act 10, as it was called when it was passed by the Wisconsin legislature, basically, what Act 10 did was it restricted collective bargaining on benefits. It limited collective bargaining only to wages and said, in fact, that if negotiations were to try and take wage increases above the rate of inflation, those would then have to be passed to voters to ultimately approve that.

But, basically, it restricted all collective bargaining over any kind of benefit, except for wages.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, as you just referred to a moment ago, there’s already been a lawsuit filed in federal court challenging it. Explain again, now, on what grounds is this challenge going forward?

ADAM SCHRAGER: Well, the challenge that was filed today by the unions in federal court — and it was actually assigned to a judge that was a President Obama appointee — basically will challenge this law and say that it is discriminatory against the civil rights of public service workers because it sets them aside and puts them in different classes.

Because firefighters, because police officers are not obligated under this law, their collective bargaining rights have not been taken away. The unions are claiming as part of this lawsuit that, in fact, everybody else’s civil rights have been violated and, therefore, it’s a violation of federal law.

It’s interesting that they’re not seeking to enjoin all parts of this law. They are not seeking to stop the increased contributions for both pension and health care. That is not a part of this law that they are challenging.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, we will see where that — where that legal challenge goes.

But, separately, Adam Schrager, we know there’s been political fallout as well. There are now a number of state senators facing efforts to have them recalled. Tell us where that stands.

ADAM SCHRAGER: You know, it’s interesting, because in the history of this country, since 1908, when Oregon became the first state in the nation to allow its voters to recall state officials, this has only happened 20 times, where state lawmakers have actually had to face a recall election.

Coming up in August, we are going to see nine state senators that face recalls, six Republicans, three senators — or three Democrats. There are going to be primaries in July, and then the eventual election will take place in August.

It’s really unprecedented in this country’s history to have that many state elected officials being recalled, basically, and asking their voters once again for their support. And it could control the state Senate. It’s going to be very interesting.

If you talk to Democrats right now, they’re optimistic that they can end up gaining the majority. They need three seats in order to do that. If you ask the Republicans, they’re also optimistic right now. They feel they can actually gain an extra seat by knocking off one or two of the Democrats who are up for recall.

So, it’s going to be a very interesting summer here in Wisconsin.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, Adam Schrager, you were saying those recall efforts are not necessarily connected to how these state senators voted on the collective bargaining law.

ADAM SCHRAGER: Well, that’s what led them to these recall efforts, but it’s interesting to watch these campaigns as they’re playing out right now.

As you mentioned in your story, Wisconsin is right now, as we speak, debating — the Wisconsin State Assembly debating a budget that seeks to trim $3.6 billion in state spending over the next couple of years.

And, interestingly enough, anyone who’s having to deal with budgets like this across this country are seeing cuts to schools, cuts to health care. And it’s interesting. As we hear some of these campaigns go on right now, that’s the main focus that you’re hearing Democrats challenging Republicans.

Republicans, interestingly enough, who are challenging the Democrats do want to focus on this issue because they say Democrats abdicated their job when they left this state and fled to Illinois. But the Democrats who are challenging the Republicans, this is just one part of a very large campaign against the Republicans that, basically, they are terming as a war against the middle class.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, we will leave it there.

Adam Schrager in Wisconsin, thanks very much.