09.15.12

Wisconsin’s Healthy Union Mess

A judge has ruled Gov. Scott Walker’s collective bargaining reform unconstitutional, setting up a new round in the state’s epic union battle. John Avlon on why it’s a fight worth having.

Republicans in VP nominee Paul Ryan’s home state of Wisconsin got unwelcome news late Friday afternoon when Judge Juan B. Colas declared significant portions of collective-bargaining reform unconstitutional.

This was Governor Scott Walker’s signature reform, the result of a hard-won policy fight that ended up provoking his unsuccessful recall earlier this year. And while the collective bargaining reform may have been ideologically motivated, it helped close a multi-million dollar budget gap in the state.

Since Walker took on the public sector unions—exempting police and firefighters—Wisconsin has been positioned as ground zero for an ideological Armageddon. Unions unleashed lengthy protests that presaged the Occupy Movement, while fiscal conservatives saw an opening for ongoing reforms that could be exported to other states. 

Judge Colas declared that the law “single[s] out and encumber[s] the rights of those employees who choose union membership and representation solely because of that association and therefore infringe upon the rights of free speech and association guaranteed by both the Wisconsin and United States Constitutions." It will now be appealed at the Chicago Court of Appeals. 

On a political level, Governor Walker and his fellow Wisconsin Republicans had already been vindicated. National labor unions put all their effort, in a test of their vaunted ground-game, in the recall election that occurred on June 5th.  Thy lost to the big money funneled into the race by conservative super PACs.

Walker’s tactics were unnecessarily heavy-handed, bit he was acting to close chronic budget gaps.

Moreover, and not incidentally, the Republican National Committee is now almost entirely run by Wisconsinites, including Chairman Reince Priebus—for them, this is local politics and their power has only been heightened by Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan’s pick to be Mitt Romney’s running mate.

It will be interesting to see whether this law is declared unconstitutional by the Chicago court.  After all, the mechanism Walker & Co. used to pass the controversial legislation was consistent with the state constitution, as I reported in a March column. And the law was upheld by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in a 4-3 decision focusing on the process of its passage.  A stay will be issued while the matter is decided by the Court of Appeals. 

While Walker’s tactics were unnecessarily heavy-handed, he was acting to close chronic budget gaps in a way that resonates as common sense with many private sector workers, who do not enjoy the same benefits, let alone at taxpayer expense.

Despite all the polarization, this is a healthy debate for states—and the nation—to have. Walker’s striking success at surviving the high-stakes recall election should send a signal to the warring factions. Trying to erase reforms, however contentious, through the courts only reinforces the alienating politicization of the judiciary in recent decades. 

In our hard times, with the nation facing long-term deficits and debt, restoring long-term fiscal responsibility is both an opportunity and an obligation that resonates with middle class, Main Street voters, no matter what the protest signs that claim to speak for them might say. As a practical policy matter, if Democrats don’t like this solution, they need to come up with a constructive alternative plan—and fast.