Wis. AG appeals union law ruling, asks for stay

September 18, 2012 - 5:35 PM

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin's attorney general on Tuesday appealed a court ruling repealing major parts of Gov. Scott Walker's law effectively ending collective bargaining for most public workers.

J.B. Van Hollen also asked a judge to place his ruling on hold while the appeal is pending.

Van Hollen's request just four days after the ruling Friday comes as school districts and local governments attempt to understand the ramifications of the decision and whether it opens the door to new negotiations previously barred with unions.

Van Hollen, a Republican, asked that Dane County Circuit Judge Juan Colas act quickly on the request to halt his ruling, which overturned the law as it pertained to school and local government workers. Not taking swift action, Van Hollen argued, would lead to chaos and further confusion given that Walker's law effectively ending collective bargaining has been in effect for more than a year.

"It makes no sense to force a return to a broken system before the appellate process is completed," Van Hollen said in a statement. He filed the appeal with the state's 4th District Court of Appeals in Madison.

Lester Pines, the attorney representing the Madison teachers union that brought the lawsuit, promised to vigorously fight the request to put the ruling on hold.

"It's not going to be chaotic," Pines said. "We believe that these assertions of chaos are more propaganda than anything else."

Pines sent a separate letter to Van Hollen on Tuesday asking him to clarify whether he accepts the authority of Colas to preside over the case given that Walker, a Republican, had called Colas a "liberal activist judge" who "overturned the will of the people and imposed his personal political beliefs on all of us."

Pines, in a sternly worded letter, said it was unacceptable for Van Hollen to say nothing while his client, Walker, accused a judge of bias and prejudice.

Van Hollen told The Associated Press in an interview Monday that he didn't want to comment on Walker's statements or "go into Colas' head." Van Hollen said "legal minds can disagree" on the merits of the ruling, but he found it to be "woefully legally deficient."

Also Tuesday, the Madison teachers union notified the school district that it wanted to begin talks on a new contract in light of the ruling. The district's roughly 4,700 union-covered employees are working under a contract that runs through June 2013.

District Superintendent Jane Belmore has said nothing should be done given the legal uncertainties surrounding the law.

While the legal battle moved forward, those affected by Friday's ruling continued to try to understand its ramifications.

The Wisconsin Association of School Boards posted an analysis of the ruling on its website that downplayed its significance, saying the law has not completely restored the situation that existed before the collective bargaining changes took effect last year.

The boards noted the ruling doesn't reinstate schools and local government "interest arbitration," which since 1978 had given the final say in contract disputes to an independent arbitrator.

Now the dispute resolution process ends with mediation, and if no agreement is reached, the employer can implement its last offer. That means school and local government managers still retain significant control over how final decisions are reached after they meet in good faith and try to reach a voluntary agreement, said Peter Davis, general counsel for the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission.

"The unstated piece is the question of whether employers are willing to, or able to, or interested in using that leverage they have," Davis said. "That varies substantially from community to community."

Pines said attorneys are studying the full impact of the ruling, including its effect on interest arbitration.

"We haven't conceded that the decision is as limited as some are saying," Pines said.

The real point of the ruling is that it ensures public labor unions won't be destroyed, Pines said.

"That goal of Gov. Walker and his minions has been thwarted," he said. "The unions will be there, they will be representing their employees and the wise employer, knowing that the public employee unions are not going to be squeezed out of existence, now will work with their unions."

The law as passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature in 2011 applied to all public employees except police, firefighters, local transit workers and emergency medical service employees. It limits collective bargaining on wage increases to the rate of inflation. Other issues, such as workplace safety, vacation and health benefits, were excluded from collective bargaining.

Colas said in his ruling that the law violates the school and local employees' constitutional rights to free speech, free association and equal representation because it capped union workers' raises but not those of their nonunion counterparts.

His ruling applied only to local and school employees, not those employed by the state or the University of Wisconsin System.

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