Madison - As state officials took steps Wednesday to all but end collective bargaining for most public workers as of June 29, a coalition of unions filed suit in federal court seeking to block the action.
The federal lawsuit came a day after the state Supreme Court ordered the reinstatement of the collective-bargaining legislation that Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed into law in March but that a Dane County judge quickly blocked.
Two other lawsuits are pending against the limits on collective bargaining, and more are expected.
On Tuesday, the state Supreme Court found a legislative committee did not violate the open meetings law in passing the collective bargaining changes and said there was nothing to prevent Democratic Secretary of State Douglas La Follette from publishing the law and putting it into effect. La Follette said Wednesday he would publish it June 28, putting the law into effect on June 29.
The secretary of state has 10 business days to publish a law after it is signed into law. La Follette is counting the 10 days from the date of the Supreme Court's order.
"There is no precedent about what to do," La Follette said. "This has never happened before."
But Assistant Attorney General Steven Means said the Supreme Court ruling makes clear that La Follette must act immediately.
"We believe the secretary of state's 10 days to publish notice of publication has passed and that he must perform his statutory duties immediately," Means wrote in an email.
Bob Ziegelbauer, an independent member of the Assembly and the Manitowoc County executive, said he was frustrated with the delay in publishing the law. He said he will be able to hire 15 to 20 county workers once the bill goes into effect.
"It might seem like a cute ploy by the secretary of state, but it hurts real people," Ziegelbauer said. "The secretary of state ought to act responsibly and ought to publish this thing with all due speed."
The governor said La Follette's schedule was workable because the law would go into effect before the new fiscal year starts July 1.
The measure would prohibit most collective bargaining by most state, local and school employees and also requires them to pay more for their health care and pensions. Police, firefighters and state troopers are exempt from the changes, a move that is the centerpiece of the unions' argument in the new lawsuit.
Walker's top aide, Administration Secretary Mike Huebsch, announced the higher payments for benefits would show up on the paychecks of state employees in late August at the earliest. He said the state would not seek retroactive payment from employees.
For school and local government employees, the higher payments for heath care will depend on when their current labor contracts expire, he said.
At a Capitol news conference Wednesday, Walker praised the Supreme Court for its ruling on the issue a day earlier and expressed no worries about the new lawsuit.
"I think the overwhelming number of people in the state believe the legal action is done and it's time for us to move on," Walker said.
The unions charge that the collective bargaining legislation violates the U.S. Constitution by discriminating among classes of public employees because firefighters, police officers and troopers are exempt from the legislation.
The lawsuit was filed by the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO; three councils of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; the American Federation of Teachers-Wisconsin; the Wisconsin Education Association Council; and the Service Employees International Union-Health Care Wisconsin.
Walker, the unions charged, tried to "eliminate or reduce to a shell" the existing rights of state and municipal employees "while maintaining the robust bargaining rights of a favored class consisting of those employees falling within a newly created category deemed 'public safety' employees."
The lawsuit also raised a political dimension to Walker's collective bargaining legislation, accusing the governor of exempting unions and employee associations that supported him in his campaign for governor. The unions representing the troopers, Milwaukee firefighters and Milwaukee police officers backed Walker during last year's campaign.
In a statement, the unions that filed the new suit said they filed it because the collective-bargaining legislation "denies hundreds of thousands of public employees their right to collectively bargain for a better life. The groups challenge the constitutionality of the state's budget-repair bill which would destroy collective bargaining rights for all but a select group of public sector workers."
The suit, filed in the Western District of Wisconsin, says the legislation violates the 1st and 14th amendments of the U.S. Constitution "by stripping away basic rights to bargain, organize and associate for the purpose of engaging in union activity, which have been in place for the last half century."
The case is assigned to U.S. District Judge William M. Conley, who was appointed by President Barack Obama.
The unions are asking the federal court to prevent the Walker administration from implementing the legislation, either temporarily or permanently.
The suit does not seek to stop the pension and health requirements imposed by Walker's bill.
"Public sector unions have made it clear from day one that Wisconsin workers would do their part to share in the sacrifice and keep our state moving forward. The lawsuit only seeks to preserve the basic right to bargain and freely associate," a statement from the AFL-CIO said.
The new lawsuit attacks the collective bargaining changes on their merits, something that was not at play in the case the state Supreme Court decided Tuesday.
That case looked at whether a committee of lawmakers violated the open meetings law by meeting with little notice and barring all but 20 members of the general public from attending it. The 4-3 ruling found the open meetings law largely does not apply to lawmakers.
The decision prompted outrage from advocates for open government.
Robert Dreps, a Madison attorney who is an expert on open records and open meetings laws, said the net effect of the Supreme Court ruling is that the Legislature can do what it wants when it comes to meetings.
"For at least 35 years, the Legislature has pretended to be bound by the open meetings law. They now have said they have the prerogative to ignore the law," said Dreps, who has represented the Journal Sentinel.
But Rep. Robin Vos (R-Rochester), co-chairman of the powerful Joint Finance Committee, said lawmakers will continue to do their business in public.
"We have always acted in open," he said. "Our rules require it....Nothing will change."
Bill Glauber of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.Wisconsin WaveWisconsin WaveWisconsin Wave