A Madison judge on Monday found Wisconsin labor relations officials in contempt for enforcing parts of Gov. Scott Walker's contentious bargaining restrictions despite a ruling that they're unconstitutional, clearing the way for hundreds of school district and municipal worker unions to negotiate with their employers again.
Dane County Circuit Judge Juan Colas ruled last year the provisions were unconstitutional as they applied to two unions representing Madison teachers and Milwaukee public workers, creating confusion about whether the ruling applied to all school and municipal workers across the state.
Colas ruled Monday that his original decision wiped the provisions out of existence. He found the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission in contempt of court and issued an injunction barring it from enforcing the restrictions against any school district or municipal worker union.
"I think this conduct was nothing more than an attempt to elude the application of a judgment the commissioners knew full well applied," the judge said.
The state has appealed Colas' original ruling from September 2012. The Wisconsin Supreme Court has agreed to take the case. It's unclear when the high court might rule, however, and the WERC has continued to prepare for certification elections for more than 400 school district worker unions in November, as per the restrictions. The commission argued Colas' ruling applied only to the Madison and Milwaukee unions.
Six unions filed a motion with Colas in September demanding he find WERC in contempt, arguing his ruling did indeed reach across the state.
"The defendants ignored you ... and that cannot stand," Lester Pines, an attorney who represents the Madison teachers as well as the Kenosha Education Association, one of the six unions that filed the contempt motion, told Colas during a hearing Monday. "If they do not respect the rulings of the court, the rule of law is meaningless."
Steven Kilpatrick, a state Department of Justice attorney representing WERC, countered that the commission has refrained from enforcing the restrictions on the Madison teachers and Milwaukee workers.
But a circuit court judge's rulings don't extend beyond the parties in the case at hand unless the judge issues an injunction, he argued. Without a ruling from a state appellate court or the state Supreme Court stating otherwise, WERC is within its rights to enforce the restrictions against other unions, he said.
The unions' attorneys said that argument would create situations where judges' rulings affect some people but not others.
Colas' ruling doesn't affect state workers, who must still abide by the restrictions. But it means the school district union elections set for next month are off and school district and municipal workers are free to negotiate wages, hours, vacations and workplace conditions.
Betsy Kippers, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state's largest teachers union and one of the groups that brought the contempt motion, declared victory outside the courtroom.
"It does amaze me they felt they were outside the ruling," Kippers said.
WERC officials posted a statement on the agency's website saying they will comply with Colas' decision but plan to ask the state Supreme Court to stay the ruling. The elections could go on next month as planned if the court grants one quickly enough, the statement said. A group of conservative-leaning justices currently controls the court.
A Walker spokesman released a statement saying his administration was confident the court will uphold the law in its entirety.
The Republican-controlled Legislature passed a Walker-backed bill in 2011 that stripped most public workers of bargaining rights.
The plan allows their unions to collectively bargain only for raises limited to the rate of inflation. It also requires union members to vote each year on whether they want their union to continue representing them in those limited negotiations.
Democrats accused Walker of trying to cripple public labor unions, one of their key constituencies. Walker countered the measure gives state and local governments financial flexibility.
A federal judge in Madison and a federal appeals court panel have both found the law constitutional.