Wisconsin labor panel won't stop union restrictions

Sep. 23, 2013
Supporters of a recall effort against Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker display lighted signs outside the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin Tuesday, June 5, 2012. Wisconsin residents have been casting votes in statewide recall elections against Walker, his lieutenant governor and several state senators. John Hart - State Journal.

MADISON — Wisconsin labor relations officials refused a demand Monday to stop enforcing provisions of Gov. Scott Walkerís contentious public union restrictions against local government unions, brushing aside allegations theyíre violating a court order.

Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission Chairman James R. Scott said the panel is working to set up hundreds of union certification elections as prescribed in the restrictions and hasnít defied any order. Union attorneys vowed to file a court motion on Tuesday asking a judge to hold the panel in contempt.

The Republican-controlled Legislature in 2011 passed a Walker proposal that stripped almost all public employees of nearly all their union rights. The plan also requires unions to hold annual elections to avoid decertification.

A federal judge in Madison and a federal appeals court have upheld the restrictions in separate lawsuits. But Dane County Circuit Court Judge Juan Colas ruled last year that the restrictions were unconstitutional as applied to two unions representing Madison teachers and Milwaukee public workers.

Itís unclear whether the ruling applies to local government unions across Wisconsin, though. The state Supreme Court has agreed to take the case. WERC, the body that oversees labor relations with municipal public employees, has been preparing to hold annual certification elections for more than 400 unions in November regardless.

The Madison teachers and Milwaukee workers unions asked Colas for an injunction blocking WERC from holding the elections. Colas issued a ruling last week saying his decision applies across the board but stopped short of issuing an injunction, creating more confusion.

Attorneys for six unions that werenít involved in the Madison-Milwaukee lawsuit, including the stateís largest teachers union, sent WERC a letter Friday warning the commission that continuing to prepare for the elections violates Colasí order. If the panel didnít stop its work by Monday the attorneys promised to seek an order holding it in contempt of court.

WERC met in closed session Monday morning to decide its next move. Scott sent a terse, two-sentence letter to the unionsí lead attorney, Timothy Hawks, Monday afternoon saying more than 400 unions have asked for re-certification elections and panel members donít believe proceeding with them puts them in contempt of any court order.

Peter Davis, the commissionís chief counsel, didnít immediately return a message seeking elaboration on the panelís position.

Hawks said in a statement that the unions gave WERC a chance to ďcorrect their behaviorĒ and now will file a motion asking Colas to hold the panel in contempt.

Lester Pines is an attorney representing both the Kenosha Education Association, one of the six unions that demanded WERC stop the elections, and the Madison teachers. He said WERC is essentially arguing itís merely doing what the unions asked. But the unions had no choice but to ask for the elections, he said; if they hadnít asked for them by Aug. 30 they would have been decertified automatically.

ďThat is chutzpah,Ē Pines said of the panelís response.

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