Wisconsin Judge Blocks Bargaining Law—Now What?

By Sean Cavanagh — March 18, 2011 2 min read
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A Wisconsin judge has temporarily blocked a law supported by Gov. Scott Walker that would strip teachers and other public workers of many collective bargaining rights.

The decision, for the moment, seems certain to bring even more uncertainty to school districts around Wisconsin, which have been trying to gauge the financial impact—as well as the impact on workforce relations—of the new law.

Dane County, Wis., Circuit Court Judge Maryann Sumi issued a temporary restraining order Friday in response to a challenge by the county’s district attorney arguing that the legislature approved the measure without proper regard for open meetings laws.

As regular followers of the Wisconsin saga will recall, Republicans in the state Senate had originally been unable to vote on the controversial measure because Democrats had fled the state, preventing a quorum. But the GOP ended up getting around the impasse by splitting the bill into different parts and approving it through a legislative committee, a process that eventually allowed it to be approved by the full legislature and sent to Walker’s desk, for his signature last week.

Walker’s bill would require teachers and most other public employees to contribute more to their pensions and health care. More controversially, it would set numerous restrictions on those workers’ collective bargaining rights. The governor argues that those changes will give local school districts the ability to create lower-cost contracts.

But some district and school board officials have voiced skepticism about whether those savings will be enough to make up for major cuts in state aid that Walker has proposed.

A Wisconsin Association of School Boards official told me this week that the organization is aware of several districts moving to approve new contracts with teachers before the collective bargaining law takes effect. The school boards association is advising its member to be cautious in going that route. Walker has criticized those efforts, saying many of the new deals don’t include the kinds of concessions that will save districts money.

All of these competing dynamics would appear to leave school districts in a confused state.

After all, school districts are still waiting on state lawmakers to consider Walker’s state budget, which includes deep cuts in state aid to schools and sets limits on local districts’ ability to raise some of the money through taxes. And while any existing collective bargaining agreements districts have will remain in place, those school systems will have to wait to see if Walker’s law goes through, and the extent to which it helps them offset the loss of state aid in future years.

Here’s another possible wildcard: Republicans could simply try to approve the bill again, in a manner that puts them on firmer legal ground. State Democrats are saying that they hope the judge’s action will compel Republicans come to the negotiating table and rewrite the law in a way that is fairer to teachers and other workers.

If you’re in Wisconsin—or even if you’re not—what do you see as the likely endgame for the governor’s bargaining bill, and for schools?

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.