For those of us without law degrees, it may be hard to understand the ruling handed down by Dane County Circuit Court Judge Juan Colas on Tuesday.
The bottom line is that the fate of Colas' union-friendly ruling remains in the hands of the state Supreme Court, which has not yet acted. In the meantime, Madison's teachers union is battling to hold life-threatening provisions of Act 10 at bay. Both sides said Tuesday's ruling was a win.
Here’s the important background:
Colas ruled last year in a lawsuit brought by Madison Teachers Inc. that certain provisions of Act 10 — Gov. Scott Walker’s signature bill curtailing public employee union rights — were unconstitutional, including a provision that requires unions to recertify with the state annually. That's important because the requirement for frequent elections means a greater number of chances for unions to lose the right to continue.
The Walker administration has appealed the MTI case to the state Supreme Court, where it awaits a further ruling.
As the case awaits appeal, however, public employers across the state have decertified unions that have not held recertification elections. As a result, MTI asked Colas to issue “injunctive relief,” barring the state from enforcing the provisions of Act 10 that he ruled were unconstitutional.
On Tuesday, however, Colas denied the request for injunctive relief but wrote in his decision that his original ruling indeed bars the state from enforcing the Act 10 provisions.
According to Lester Pines, the attorney representing MTI, the judge’s decision means that units of government should be recognizing and bargaining with unions that they ceased recognizing after pre-Act 10 labor contracts expired.
"It makes no difference (whether injunctive relief was granted) now that he’s made it clear to them they can’t enforce (Act 10) against anybody," he says.
While the city of Madison, the Madison Metropolitan School District and Dane County reacted to the Colas ruling last year by ratifying new labor agreements with public employee unions, many other governmental units throughout the state — where elected officials are not as labor-friendly — have allowed union contracts to expire without negotiating new ones.
Pines says many employers have the impression that all the provisions of Act 10 are still in effect because the Walker administration has refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of Colas' ruling.
Instead, it has argued that the ruling only affects MTI — the plaintiff in this case — and not other unions. Colas specifically rejected that claim in his decision Tuesday.
"It was never ambiguous but there was an enormous propaganda campaign to say it only applies to MTI and that’s just not the case," says Pines.
For instance, says Pines, the Kenosha Education Association has been notified by the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission that it has been decertified because it did not hold an annual recertification vote.
"They're thumbing their nose at the court," he says.
How the state will respond to the ruling remains unclear.
"We're pleased (Colas) declined to issue an injunction," Department of Justice spokeswoman Dana Brueck told WisPolitics. "As to what else it might mean, we'll confer with our clients."
Meanwhile Peter Davis, the general counsel for the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission, told the Wisconsin State Journal that the ruling means the state can move ahead with further certification votes.
Pines says he can't predict how the state Supreme Court will rule on Act 10.
"I have confidence that it’s going to be a fantastic oral argument that’s going to go on for hours. It isn’t a trifling case and they’re going to take it seriously," he says.
Regardless of the legal battle, Act 10 has already deeply weakened public employee unions throughout the state. The state's largest public unions are not certified and have not been receiving automatic dues from their members' paychecks.
The financial toll Act 10 has taken on unions has been noted in the decline of union activity in elections and lobbying.