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Thursday, February 29, 2024
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Act 10 took their rights away. They’re fighting to get them back

Multiple unions across Wisconsin launched a lawsuit attempting to end the state’s near-total ban on collective bargaining.

In the spring of 2010, Matthew Ziebarth, a veteran negotiator for the Hartford Education Association collective bargaining team, was hearing whispers that Wisconsin Republicans had prepared a “dramatic” move for taxpayers that could impact unions. 

Ziebarth initially dismissed the rumors. But during routine negotiations over budgeting with the Hartford Union High School District, he observed a shift in the attitude of administrators and the school board. 

Then, he heard an ominous comment from the district administrator, who told Zeibarth he had “no idea what was coming.”

A few months later, Republican Gov. Scott Walker introduced his signature legislative achievement: Act 10, a controversial and sweeping law that — over months of fervent demonstrations in opposition — effectively eliminated collective bargaining rights for most public workers.

Labor organizations are trying to change that. 

Last Thursday, Ziebarth and seven unions representing teachers and other public employees launched a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Act 10. The lawsuit alleges the exemption of some police, firefighters and other public safety workers from the bargaining restrictions violates the Wisconsin Constitution’s equal protection guarantee. 

Union members said they filed the lawsuit due to “dire” situations in their workplaces: low pay, staffing shortages and worsening working conditions — the effects of Act 10.

“Grad students don’t make enough to live,” Madeline Topf, co-president of the UW-Madison Teaching Assistant Association (TAA), told the Cardinal. “People can’t afford their rent, they can’t afford food. As workers who are really under a lot of this pressure, one way to alleviate that is through collective bargaining — being able to negotiate over workplace issues.”

Act 10 leaves unions alone at the negotiating table, workers say

Act 10 first divided public employees into two groups — “general” employees, which encompassed the majority of unions in Wisconsin, and “public safety employees,” such as police and firefighters. 

Public safety workers were untouched by the bill. But for general employees, the bill curbed their collective bargaining rights, with caps on wage negotiations tied to inflation. The law, which took effect in June 2011, precipitated a dramatic decrease in union membership and created a far weaker hand for teachers, nurses and other public servants in negotiations.

Today, Ziebarth, working as the Chief Negotiator for the Beaver Dam Education Association, compared negotiations after Act 10 to scripted “theater.” In his view, the school districts don’t have to truly engage with teachers in talks because the system favors them.

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“[We] can negotiate. But the way the law was written, the school board, in the midst of negotiations with [our union] — they ultimately have a final decision,” Ziebarth said. “They can basically say, ‘thank you very much, but we’re just going to impose what we want.’ So it's not real negotiation.”

Ziebarth’s experiences are similar to stories shared by members of the TAA, a union that represents all graduate student workers at UW-Madison and is a plaintiff in the lawsuit. 

The union has been vocal about the rising cost of living and other issues making life for its members untenable, according to TAA Co-President Nina Denne. 

Denne said the union reached out to UW-Madison Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin various times to establish regular meetings and discuss issues facing graduate students. But they were turned away, she said.

Prior to Act 10, Denne said the TAA was able to negotiate with the administration. But with the loss of collective bargaining rights, Mnookin can ignore their demands, she said.

Denne referenced a petition for paid family and medical leave from the chancellor that has garnered nearly 500 signatures, though Mnookin has still rebuffed calls for a meeting.

“[Bringing back collective bargaining rights] would force them to listen to us,” Denne said. “If we had a seat at the table, they couldn't [ignore us] — they would have to listen to us. They would have to negotiate a contract with us. And it puts us more firmly in their eyes in a way that they can't ignore.”

Topf added this would go a long way in securing cost of living increases, paid family leave and other priorities to improve the lives of graduate workers.

In a statement, UW-Madison spokesperson John Lucas said Mnookin meets regularly with UW-Madison’s student government and other campus shared governance groups. 

Lucas pointed to a Dec. 1 announcement detailing an increase in the minimum graduate stipend, which the university hailed as “the first step in a multi-year graduate support plan.” He did not specify whether Mnookin had rejected meeting requests from the TAA.

Not all unions get same rights under Act 10

For the TAA, Topf underlined that graduate students, as state-employed workers, don’t enjoy the same rights as public safety workers — the issue at the crux of the lawsuit.

The recently filed lawsuit argues Act 10’s distinction between “public safety” and “general” employees is “irrational” and serves no legitimate state purpose, contending the classifications were politically motivated.

According to the lawsuit, only five public employee unions and associations publicly endorsed Walker’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign, all of which were later grouped as public safety employees. Unions that did not endorse Walker were given the disadvantaged “general” designation. 

A federal lawsuit shortly after Act 10 passed relied on a similar argument, alleging Act 10 violated the equal protection guarantee in the U.S. Constitution. A federal appeals court ruled in 2013 Wisconsin was free to draw a line between public safety employees and other unions, and affirmed in 2014 that the law was constitutional. The Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the law as constitutional that same year.

Ziebarth, one of three individuals named in the lawsuit, said he thought the current makeup of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which flipped to liberal control last spring, factored into the calculus behind a renewed Act 10 challenge. 

However, Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janet Protasiewicz, whose April election propelled the court to a liberal majority, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel she would consider recusing herself from any case challenging Act 10 because she participated in the 2011 protests and signed the petition to recall Walker. 

UW-Madison Labor Education Professor Michael Childers said unions were looking at this case with a fresh perspective, referencing a 2021 Missouri Supreme Court decision that struck down a law resembling Act 10.

If this lawsuit is successful, public sector workers would have their collective bargaining powers restored to pre-Act 10 standards, though Ziebarth cautioned the damage wrought by Act 10 wouldn’t be fixed instantly.

Unlike other significant cases that have gone directly to the Supreme Court since its ideological shift, the union filed its lawsuit in a county circuit court. The lawsuit will likely take more than a year to make its way up for a final ruling. 

Denne and Topf said they were prepared for a long process.

“This is a really exciting opportunity,” Denne said. “It’s a great moment to convey to graduate students that we are a fighting union — that we are fighting for our rights, and that this is really the time to get involved. We are on the fight to win back our rights and to be treated like everyone else.”

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Gavin Escott

Gavin Escott is a senior staff writer and photographer for multiple desks at The Daily Cardinal. Throughout his time at the Cardinal, he's written articles for city, state, campus and breaking news. He is the current host/producer of the Cardinal Call podcast. Follow him on Twitter at @gav_escott.

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