November 23, 2014

WERC commissioners held in contempt in Act 10 case

A Dane County judge has found state labor relations commissioners in contempt of court for continuing to enforce parts of a law that limits collective bargaining for public employee unions. Judge Juan Colás on Monday said members of the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission engaged in conduct that “was nothing more than an attempt to elude the application of a…judgment of the court that the commissioners knew full well applied.”

Colás ruled in September of last year that the law, commonly known as Act 10, was unconstitutional. The original case was brought by unions representing teachers in Madison and municipal workers in Milwaukee, which WERC stopped enforcing the law against while it appealed the decision. The commission continued to require similar unions around the state to plan recertification votes though and prevented them from negotiating over wages and working conditions. The ruling had no impact on state employee unions.

Assistant Attorney General Steven Kilpatrick argued that the commission thought the ruling only applied to the two unions that filed the original lawsuit. “To be in contempt of court, there has to be an intentional disobedience of a court order…and I submit that there was no intent to disobey any order of the court,” argued Kilpatrick. But Judge Colás determined that commissioners did consider the judgment of the court regarding Act 10, and “made a decision that they would disregard it.”

Unions not included in the original lawsuit filed the contempt motion. Attorney Lester Pines, who represents some of those groups, praised Judge Colás’ decision, saying that WERC was clearly ignoring the ruling of the judge in an attempt to “get rid of the unions as fast as they could” by holding recertification votes in the coming months.

Monday’s decision means those recertification votes will be cancelled for at least the time being. The long term impact of the contempt order and further injunctions remains unclear though. The state Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments next month on an appeal of Colás’ original ruling from September of 2012.