By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON, Wis. – When the Republican-controlled Legislature passed Gov. Scott Walker’s landmark collective bargaining reform bill, known as Act 10, in March 2011, the nation’s largest government-worker union shook its fist and declared that Wisconsin’s organized labor war was far from over.
“This may be a battle that has been won by the governor, but we are in this for the long haul,” said Lee A. Saunders, now president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, told the Washington Post at the time.
Saunders was right. AFSCME and public sector unions at large were in it for the long haul.
As of Thursday, however, the war is over and the unions have lost — big.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court, in a 5-2 ruling, upheld Act 10 in its entirety, siding with multiple federal court decisions on the subject and toppling the sole ruling, from a liberal Dane County judge, that had declared portions of the law unconstitutional.
While the unions could take their case to the U.S. Supreme Court based on the First Amendment questions they have raised, public employees aren’t likely to meet a very receptive audience based on the high court’s decisions on government unions in recent years.
Act 10’s victories could translate into bigger wins nationally for opponents of public-sector unions, emboldening other conservative governors and legislators who have been timid about taking on the muscle of Big Labor, a right-to-work leader asserts.
“I think the court’s decision will encourage legislators across the country to see how they might reform (collective bargaining) in states across the country,” Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation told Wisconsin Reporter following the Supreme Court decision.
Mix pointed to major victories for the movement, including a U.S. Supreme Court decision in June that struck down an Illinois law compelling home health care workers to pay union dues. In 2007, the court ruled that labor unions do not have First Amendment protections to seize and use for politics the wages of employees who decline to be in unions.
With mounting court cases protecting public employee rights not to be in unions, and upholding laws limiting public sector collective bargaining, Mix said the ground is set for reforms like Act 10 in the 24 states that require government employees to pay union dues.
But Mix said whether lawmakers and governors can push for reform and whether they will do so are two separate questions.
“The Supreme Court has answered the former question, but that doesn’t do much for the latter question,” he said. “The question is, do reformers have the desire to go up against the most powerful political force in America: Organized labor?”
Unions have seen their numbers diminished in recent years, particularly in Wisconsin post-Act 10.
As of January, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s largest teachers union, had lost about a third of its 98,000 members, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Wisconsin, Mix said, is a bellwether state, leading the road to reform. The Badger State, after all, pioneered public sector collective bargaining in 1959.
Government union membership swelled over that period. As Mix put it, public sector organizing is the “last frontier” for Big Labor in America.
Public employee unions, particularly teachers unions, remain a force to contend with, but certainly not the force they were three-plus years ago.
“Wisconsin teacher unions currently have substantial resources from their members and have been an active force in Wisconsin state politics,” wrote the authors of the “How Strong Are U.S. Teachers Unions” report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an advocate for education reform, including the controversial Common Core State Standards. That report was released in 2013. “But recent legislation, which sharply erodes their collective bargaining rights, likely heralds an era of diminished strength for public unions in general, and teacher unions in particular in the Badger State.”
Some Republican governors have made moves to take on public sector unions. Ohio Gov. John Kasich and the Republican Legislature tried reforming Ohio’s expensive collective bargaining law. The unions pushed back and dumped millions of dollars into a campaign to overturn the reforms at the polls.
New Jersey Chris Christie pushed state pension and benefit reforms, but they didn’t go nearly as far as Walker’s. With a state pension liability estimated at $47 billion and rapidly growing, there’s much work to be done.
Political timidity may be excused when looking at the Wisconsin example. Walker, as he notes in his book,“Unintimidated: A Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge,” was constantly hounded by union protesters, and he and his family received multiple death threats. So did his Republican colleagues in the Legislature.
And Act 10 was the driving force behind a Big Labor-led recall movement against Walker, his lieutenant governor and several Republican senators. Walker became the first government in U.S. history to survive a recall.
Act 10 has and will continue to play prominently in his bid for a second term, with polling showing a dead heat in the race pitting the Republican against leading Democrat candidate Mary Burke.
It seems like public sector unions are banking on a change in leadership to reform Walker’s reform, and they’re willing to make a big cash investment in Democrat campaigns to get there.
“We believe that at (sic) in the not too distant future we will once again be governed by laws that more accurately reflect the wishes and the values of most Wisconsin citizens,” the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Wisconsin said in a statement following Thursday’s ruling.
“But for now, we will continue organizing our members, taking collection action and working to elect more far-sighted leaders who understand that Wisconsin works best when it works together.”
Mix said the excuses are dwindling for government reformers who really want to take on public employee unions.
“Some have hidden behind legal questions, whether they could do that (reform government collective bargaining),” he said. “That road is getting straighter all the time.”