The Perceptible Disconnect between the Global Economic Crisis and the Wisconsin Public Sector Labor Dispute of 2011

Source: Paul Secunda, ABA Labor and Employment Law Journal, Vol. 27, No. 2, 2012

From the abstract:
The enactment in June 2011 of Wisconsin Act 10, legislation that eliminated most collective bargaining rights for most public employees in Wisconsin, did not necessarily follow from the economic conditions surrounding the global recession. The argument here is that it was a blatant power grab with political, social, and economic implications. Governor Walker’s claim that Act 10’s anti-collective bargaining approach was required to balance Wisconsin’s budget is belied by two unassailable facts. First, there were a number of provisions in the law, including an annual union recertification requirement and an anti-dues checkoff provision, which had absolutely nothing to do with cost savings. Perhaps even more tellingly, when Act 10 was finally enacted by the State legislature, Walker and his allies in the legislature employed a legislative procedure which could only be utilized if Act 10 did not have any impact on state fiscal policy. In short, Governor Walker used the global economic crisis, and Wisconsin’s budget situation more specifically, as a ruse to enact a punitive bill against public sector unions.

Although unions and their allies have drafted, and continue to draft, procedural and substantive legal challenges to Act 10 based on state open meeting laws and constitutionally-based freedom of association and equal protections provisions, these legal challenges have so far been unsuccessful. If such efforts continue to be unsuccessful, it indeed may be a long time before any real public sector collective bargaining will be permitted in Wisconsin. The subsequent loss of workplace rights not only adversely impacts public sector workers, but also the citizens of Wisconsin who will be that much poorer for having to live in a society where internationally-recognized rights of association and collective bargaining are not taken seriously.

This piece discusses this historic moment in Wisconsin public sector labor law in three parts. The first section describes the story of the enactment of Wisconsin Act 10 in chronological order. The second section then considers whether the global recession in fact lead inevitably to the enactment of Act 10. Finally, the third section concludes by normatively arguing for robust public sector bargaining rights in Wisconsin and throughout the United States.

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