Wisconsin Supreme Court upholds union reforms

Paul Kersey

Labor law expert, occasional smart-aleck, defender of the free society.

Paul Kersey
/ Labor
July 31, 2014

Wisconsin Supreme Court upholds union reforms

The Statehouse was packed. Protestors crammed the building, chanting, pounding drums and marching around with signs. The historic Wisconsin state Capitol had become overrun with sleeping bags and activists. In some cases, lawmakers were harassed. Doctors diagnosed fake illnesses so protestors could be excused from work. The Senate Democratic caucus fled the state. Within days,...

The Statehouse was packed.

Protestors crammed the building, chanting, pounding drums and marching around with signs. The historic Wisconsin state Capitol had become overrun with sleeping bags and activists. In some cases, lawmakers were harassed. Doctors diagnosed fake illnesses so protestors could be excused from work. The Senate Democratic caucus fled the state. Within days, this scene from February 2011 was national news.

The reason behind this uproar? A measure proposed by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to curb the power of government-worker unions in the state.

In the years since this law, known as Act 10, was passed, the unions have challenged its legality on numerous fronts. Today, the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld these reforms. The ruling offers finality to a tumultuous chapter in Wisconsin’s history – and hope that states such as Illinois can follow our northern neighbor’s lead.

Under Act 10, bargaining is now limited to wages, so unions can’t impose restrictive work rules or expensive benefits. Government workers have Right-to-Work protection, so they don’t have to pay dues to unions they don’t support. Unions need to be recertified every year, so union officials have to win worker support and keep it.

Illinois would do well to follow Wisconsin’s lead.

State government sends billions of dollars each year to subsidize local governments and local schools. And many local government employees have overly generous pay and benefits compared with the private sector, or even other governments. If these were brought back in line, the savings for taxpayers would be tremendous. The state of Illinois could adjust its revenue sharing with local governments and aid to school districts accordingly, offering relief to taxpayers across the state.

This is how Gov. Scott Walker tamed Wisconsin’s budget problem, turned a $2 billion deficit into a $1 billion surplus and offered Wisconsinites $500 million in tax cuts.

Amidst all of the ruckus at the Wisconsin Statehouse, it was hard for the general public to understand at the time what this law was all about. Walker made strong labor law reforms that resulted in unprecedented tax cuts. Those reforms made it possible for local governments to employ public workers without paying a premium. Local employees, in turn, were no longer forced to pay union dues as a condition of employment. For those who never wished to belong to a union in the first place, the option to quit the union and keep more of their paychecks at least partly made up for any adjustments in their compensation.

Until Illinois’ elected officials take on the unions, there’s really no other way to balance the state budget and provide relief to taxpayers while preserving essential services Illinoisans rely on. In the meantime, we’ll be watching Wisconsin’s success from the sidelines.

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