Wisconsin union-gutting law took effect Saturday – or did it?

In a now-familiar scene, thousands of union supporters gathered in Madison, Wisconsin, Saturday to protest – this time against Republicans publishing an anti-union law despite a restraining order. So, have unions officially lost collective bargaining power or not?

Andy Manis/AP
Union supporter Anton Dvorak of Brooklyn, Wis. plays his tuba in front of the State Capitol in Madison, Wis., Saturday, March 26, 2011.

Wisconsin Republicans insist that the state's new union-gutting law, passed along partisan lines against a sea of street protest from union workers and Democrats, took effect today. Not everyone, however, is so certain that the law is on the books, including thousands of activists who once again descended on the capitol in Madison to protest.

A March 18 court restraining order, Republicans said, didn't make mention of the Legislative Reference Bureau (LRB), which is responsible for publishing laws in order to make them official. Therefore, they contend, Wisconsin's 53-year history of encouraging public unions ended officially on Saturday, 24 hours after the LRB posted the controversial anti-union law online.

"It's published, it's law," Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said.

IN PICTURES: Wisconsin protest signs

"The administration will carry out the law as required," said Gov. Scott Walker (R) in a short statement.

Democrats contend that the bill can't become law until the Secretary of State takes action and the entire law is published in the state newspaper, the Wisconsin State Journal – neither of which has happened.

The March 18 restraining order was placed on the law after Democrats challenged it in court, saying Republicans violated open meeting laws when they quickly passed the law after separating the anti-collective bargaining measure from a broader budget bill, which required a super-quorum to bring to a vote. Fourteen Wisconsin lawmakers left the state in order to hold up the broader budget bill.

The law bans collective bargaining for benefits and pensions, but allows unionized government workers to bargain as a union for their pay, as long as pay raises don't exceed inflation.

Dane County Circuit Judge Maryann Sumi enjoined the secretary of state from publishing the law until "further orders from this court." But the order did not reference the Legislative Reference Bureau, which actually publishes the law.

The nonpartisan Legislative Council contended in a letter to Minority Leader Peter Barca that the law is not yet officially on the books. State law, the group contends, provides distinct roles for the secretary of state and the reference bureau in making laws official. But the section in state law that determines when a law actually takes effect mentions only the secretary of state, not the reference bureau.

Rep. Barca told reporters in Wisconsin that, given those facts, the Republican contention that the union law is now active "perpetuates" misgivings and further muddies the Republican record of how they handled the deliberative process.

University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor Howard Schweber told the Wisconsin Journal Sentinel that Friday's actions – and the questions over whether the law is, in fact, now the law – put the state in "entirely uncharted waters."

The bill has both political and symbolic value. Wisconsin has been at the head of a phalanx of 37 states looking to curb union influence over state budgets. Republicans say the measures are necessary to restrict state spending and reduce massive deficits. Democrats and union activists say the law is actually intended to bust unions to benefit Republicans politically.

Even more critically for unionized civil service workers in Wisconsin, the timing of when the bill becomes law is critical. The longer it's held up in court, the more opportunity the union has to finalize a new collective bargaining agreement.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court has not yet said whether it will take up the case.

IN PICTURES: Wisconsin protest signs

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