Wisconsin judge rules against anti-worker law; unions seek new ways to rebuild union power

A Wisconsin judge recently ordered officials of the state labor relations commission to stop enforcing portions of Article 10, the 2011 law championed by Gov. Scott Walker that curtailed collective bargaining rights for the state’s teachers and other public service workers.

Union members and leaders applauded the ruling, but the state will appeal it. An appeal will eventually be heard by the state’s Supreme Court, which now has a conservative majority.

Meanwhile some unions aren’t waiting on a final ruling; instead, they’re pursuing new strategies to rebuild the union movement among Wisconsin’s public service workers.

Dane County Circuit Judge Juan Colas ruled in 2012 that Article 10 applied only to state employees and not to city, county, and school district employees.

Despite the ruling, the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission continued to enforce the law, taking away collective bargaining rights of workers as their contracts expired.

The judge on October 21 found commission officials to be in contempt and issued an injunction barring them from decertifying unions representing city, county, and school district employees. The ruling however, does not restore all rights eliminated by Article 10. For instance, it does not restore the right to binding arbitration to settle grievances and other work related issues.

Even before Judge Colas made his ruling, some unions found new ways to blunt the impact of Article 10.

For example, the University of Wisconsin at Madison Teaching Assistants Association (TAA) decided that it would act like a union whether or not the law recognizes its right to exist.

Article 10 as James Cersonsky reports in Salon requires public service unions to win annual representation elections in order to remain legally recognized by an employer.

TAA recognized that such a requirement was meant to sap union resources and keep them from being effective, so the union decided to forego the elections and instead mobilize its members for collective action.

The result was a “Pay Us Back” campaign aimed at raising pay for teaching assistants and project assistants.

Members held grade-ins at administrative offices, lobbied academic departments to support a pay raise, circulated petitions, and organized a mass e-mail campaign.

As a result, UW Madison recently announced a 4.67 percent pay increase for teaching assistants and project assistants, which raises their pay to the same level as research assistants.

“We realize this is a fairness issue and have been in discussions with graduate assistants  for about a year,” said Darrell Bazzell, vice-chancellor for Finance and Administration, to the UW News,

“This is just the start,” said a posting on the TAA website. “We will continue to fight for more take home pay, including seg fee remission. We win when our union is strong, and when we demonstrate our worth and our power on this campus.”

Meanwhile 5,000 workers at the University of Wisconsin Health Center in Madison are using political leverage and a grassroots campaign on the job to ensure that high quality patient care is maintained and workers continue to have a voice on the job after their current contracts expire.

UWHC workers were specifically targeted in Article 10, which means that when current contracts expire, UWHC administration will no longer be required to bargain collectively.

Three unions, AFSCME Council 24, AFT Wisconsin Science Professionals, and SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin, have joined together to form 5,000 Strong, a grassroots campaign aimed at maintaining the workers collective voice on the job.

According to a report by SEIU Wisconsin Healthcare and AFSCME Council 24, collective bargaining in addition to providing fair wages and benefits has given workers a voice in decisions affecting patient care, which has “strengthened the culture of quality care at UWHC.”

5,000 Strong is mobilizing members to assert their collective voice.

Members in July urged the Madison Common Council, the city’s city council, to approve a resolution supporting the recognition of the workers’ unions at UWHC.

On the day that the resolution came up for a vote, union members packed the council’s chambers. Some spoke in support of the resolution.

“The state is trying to impose a radical change on something that has been working very well,” said Willie Backes an AFSCME member and a senior respiratory therapist at UWHC. “They are trying to force an ideology on us and ‘fix’ something that isn’t broken.  This poses a huge threat to quality care and hurts Madison, the region and the entire state.”

Backes noted in is remarks that UWHC has once again been rated Wisconsin’s top hospital.  But that tradition of excellence is in danger if employees are denied a voice on the job. “We think Act 10 was a terrible mistake for everyone,” said Backes. “But it makes absolutely no sense for an independent authority that doesn’t rely on taxpayer support.”

UWHC receives no state revenue.

5,000 Strong in September also won the backing of the Dane County Board of Supervisors.

The goal of the city and county resolutions and 5,000 Strong’s grassroots mobilization is to convince UWHC to”recognize our unions  as the voice of the employees and commit to continue policies embodied in collective bargaining agreements.”

5,000 Strong notes that Dade County recently took action to maintain rights that union members have won through collective bargaining.

I”t’s time for UWHC to do the right thing, said a posting on the 5,000 Strong website. “Work with our unions to give their employees a voice and protection on the job.”

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