Wis. labor panel won't stop union restrictions

Todd Richmond, Associated Press
Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- Wisconsin labor relations officials refused a demand Monday to stop enforcing provisions of Gov. Scott Walker's contentious public union restrictions against local government unions, brushing aside allegations they're violating a court order.

Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission Chairman James R. Scott said the panel is working to set up hundreds of union certification elections as prescribed in the restrictions and hasn't defied any order. Union attorneys vowed to file a court motion on Tuesday asking a judge to hold the panel in contempt.

The Republican-controlled Legislature in 2011 passed a Walker proposal that stripped almost all public employees of nearly all their union rights. The plan also requires unions to hold annual elections to avoid decertification.

A federal judge in Madison and a federal appeals court have upheld the restrictions in separate lawsuits. But Dane County Circuit Court Judge Juan Colas ruled last year that the restrictions were unconstitutional as applied to two unions representing Madison teachers and Milwaukee public workers.

It's unclear whether the ruling applies to local government unions across Wisconsin, though. The state Supreme Court has agreed to take the case. WERC, the body that oversees labor relations with municipal public employees, has been preparing to hold annual certification elections for more than 400 unions in November regardless.

The Madison teachers and Milwaukee workers unions asked Colas for an injunction blocking WERC from holding the elections. Colas issued a ruling last week saying his decision applies across the board but stopped short of issuing an injunction, creating more confusion.

Attorneys for six unions that weren't involved in the Madison-Milwaukee lawsuit, including the state's largest teachers union, sent WERC a letter Friday warning the commission that continuing to prepare for the elections violates Colas' order. If the panel didn't stop its work by Monday the attorneys promised to seek an order holding it in contempt of court.

WERC met in closed session Monday morning to decide its next move. Scott sent a terse, two-sentence letter to the unions' lead attorney, Timothy Hawks, Monday afternoon saying more than 400 unions have asked for re-certification elections and panel members don't believe proceeding with them puts them in contempt of any court order.

Peter Davis, the commission's chief counsel, didn't immediately return a message seeking elaboration on the panel's position.

Hawks said in a statement that the unions gave WERC a chance to "correct their behavior" and now will file a motion asking Colas to hold the panel in contempt.

Lester Pines is an attorney representing both the Kenosha Education Association, one of the six unions that demanded WERC stop the elections, and the Madison teachers. He said WERC is essentially arguing it's merely doing what the unions asked. But the unions had no choice but to ask for the elections, he said; if they hadn't asked for them by Aug. 30 they would have been decertified automatically.

"That is chutzpah," Pines said of the panel's response.