Wisconsin union files unfair labor practice suit against state

March 7, 2011

WisconsinBehind the headlines of the Wisconsin budget fight, a suit has been filed relatively quietly against the State of Wisconsin.

The suit, filed by the Wisconsin State Employees Union, claims that the state, though Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has violated Wis. Stats. §§ 111.84 and 111.991 by interfering with the workers’ collective bargaining rights protected by Wis. Stats. §§ 111.82 and 111.97, and by refusing to engage in collective bargaining with the state’s employees.  The claim can be viewed on the AFL-CIO Website.

For the former claim, the complaint alleges that Walker has interfered with state employees’ collective bargaining rights by trying to strip them of those rights. Although the situation seems absurd that a legislature and executive are barred from passing new legislation because of existing legislation, the situation exists because the state is the employer here.

That is, such efforts can be seen as an employer interfering with the collective bargaining rights of its employees, which is prohibited by Wisconsin law.  And, as a final Catch-22, such a prohibition only lasts until the legislation is passed cancelling the old legislation.

In regards to the latter claim, Governor Walker holds the managerial role in what is fundamentally a labor dispute. As such, under Wis. Stats. §§ 111.82 and 111.97, Governor Walker, as representative of the employer (the state), is required to put forth a good-faith effort to bargain with the state’s employees.

According to the claim, Governor Walker has done just the opposite.  Upon taking office in January 2011, Walker, through Gregory L. Gracz, the Walker-appointed Director of the Office of State Employment Relations, unilaterally terminated the collective bargaining agreement extension that was in effect while the state and the workers’ union had negotiated to a tentative agreement from June 2009 through December 2010.  Admittedly, the extension agreement allowed for such a termination.

The complaint further alleges Walker’s refusing to negotiate in good faith with references to a statement by Walker in a local newspaper and to Walker’s unresponsiveness to a written demand from Wisconsin State Employees Union Executive Director Martin Beil.

Walker’s response to the allegations are simple: “I am not negotiating over the budget because the budget is broke

However, a recent budget analysis and political ulterior motives aside, an insolvent state government is not a legally defensible reason to simply refuse to negotiate with state employees.

That point may be moot, though. If the proposed budget bill is passed, the laws creating these rights for the workers and the state’s obligation to negotiate in good faith are terminated, rendering the union’s claim legally moot as well, and the case will get thrown out.

What does the union hope to accomplish by filing this claim, then?

From the complaint, it appears the union wants to overrule the state’s decision to terminate the extension agreement and further force the state to engage in negotiations with the state employees union.

Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, the complaint also asks the court to prohibit this and any similar conduct from the state in the future.

Despite its ambiguity, that remedy, if granted, would be the most far-reaching.  It’s basically asking the court to intervene in the legislative process and issue an injunction preventing the budget bill from proceeding any further until good-faith negotiations have failed.

What’s your take on the situation?  Can the courts save the union?  Is Governor Walker acting within his legal obligations?  Are the unions asking the courts to overstep their bounds?