The fight over public worker union rights in Wisconsin is playing out in the courtroom, in the voting booth, in the workplace, and on the streets. A restraining order has so far prevented Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-union legislation from taking effect, while legal challenges to the bill wind through the courts. The case may come before the State Supreme Court soon – but the recall elections that will decide the measure’s ultimate fate are just getting started.
Democrats and union activists say they have had an overwhelming response in most of the districts that they targeted for recall efforts. As Clarion went to press in late April, campaigners had so far filed recall petitions against five Republican state senators who voted for Walker’s bill to gut collective bargaining rights for public employees. There have only been four previous recall elections in all of Wisconsin history.
Barry Urbas of North Hudson, Wisconsin, was among the volunteers who collected more than 23,000 signatures to recall Sen. Sheila Harsdorf. A construction worker who works for a non-union contractor, Urbas said it was wrong for Walker and his allies to blame teachers for the state’s fiscal and educational problems. “What has become [of us] when you’re ashamed to be a teacher in this country?” Urbas told the Hudson Star-Observer. “It isn’t right. These people deserve better than that.”
The number of valid signatures required to trigger a recall election is equal to 25% of the number of voters in the last gubernatorial election in that district. In the current recall efforts, that figure ranges from around 12,000 to 21,000 signatures per district. Petitions in each of the five Republican districts filed so far have included around 150% the minimum number, so all look likely to withstand any challenges. They were submitted two weeks before the end of the 60-day window.
Republicans said they were set to file three petitions at Clarion press time, in at least two cases with a generous margin above the minimum number of signatures required.
If the Wisconsin Democratic Party is able to pick up three seats in the Wisconsin State Senate they would gain a majority, though two votes might be enough to block anti-union legislation. Republicans hold a wider majority in the State Assembly – but if Walker loses the tangled court fight over the legitimacy of his anti-labor bill, control of one house would be enough to prevent an attempt to re-enact it.
In one of three separate lawsuits against the bill, the Dane County DA charged that the legislature’s approval of the bill had violated Wisconsin’s strict Open Meetings Law, which requires 48 hours’ notice for almost all votes. Democrats charged that less than two hours’ notice was given to convene the meeting that voted to strip Wisconsin public employees of their collective bargaining rights.
Dane County Circuit Judge Maryann Sumi ordered the state not to officially publish the law while she heard the case against it, and Secretary of State Doug La Follette said he would comply. Walker then got another state agency to print the law, argued that it had now been “published” and began to implement its provisions, such as the ban on dues checkoff for public-sector unions. On March 29, Judge Sumi ruled that this was in violation of her restraining order, and warned Walker that defiance of the court would result in sanctions. Since then Walker has abandoned efforts to rush implementation of the bill. On April 1, Sumi gave attorneys seven weeks to answer a set of questions about the legal challenge, and observers say the case may well drag on for months.
Another lawsuit, filed by AFSCME Local 60, Firefighters Local 311 and Laborers Local 236, all representing City of Madison employees, asserts that the anti-union bill is unconstitutional. The unions’ suit contends that the bill imposes “an impermissable burden” on workers’ ability to act and express themselves through their union, in violation of their constitutional rights to freedom of speech and association. It argues that the bill also violates the constitution’s equal protection clause, by imposing burdens on union members not faced by non-union employees, and by limiting the rights of some unions but not others.
The Walker administration has asked the State Supreme Court to consider an appeal of Sumi’s restraining order, but the court has not yet said if it will take the case. The challenges against the bill are expected to end up before the high court eventually, which meant that pro- and anti-union activists were out in force for the April 5 Supreme Court election. At stake was the seat currently held by Justice David Prosser, part of the Court’s current 4-3 conservative majority.
The race was extraordinarily close. The lead swung back and forth as votes were counted, and when election night was over, Democratic candidate JoAnne Kloppenburg was reported to be ahead by a little over 200 votes. In an election that close, a recount would be automatic.
Then Waukesha County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus announced that she had discovered 14,000 votes from Brookfield, the largest city in her county, which she said she had forgotten to save while tabulating results on her personal computer. This put Prosser ahead by 7,316 votes. The fact that Nickolaus, a Republican, had previously worked under both Prosser and Walker did not reassure Democrats, nor did the fact that she had had problems with sloppy and irregular procedures in the past. Nickolaus had previously been warned against keeping election records on her PC instead of the county’s server, and had received immunity from prosecution in an investigation of misconduct when she worked as a staffer for the State Senate’s Republican Caucus.
No specific allegations against Nickolaus have been raised, and most observers expect Prosser’s apparent victory to stand. But an investigation by the federal Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section has been requested by a number of officials, including US Rep. Tammy Baldwin. Kloppenburg has asked for both a statewide recount and an investigation into the results from Waukesha County.
While Walker’s bill hangs in limbo, unions like the Teaching Assistants’ Association (TAA) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are collecting pledges from members to continue to pay dues if the bill’s ban on collecting dues through paycheck deduction takes effect.
“Some of the graduate employees we talked with this week were a little confused about the future of our union,” said Katie Lindstrom, TAA vice-president of organizing. “But after clarifying with people that Gov. Walker can’t ban the TAA and take away our rights to organize, the response has been overwhelmingly supportive.”