Arguably, the biggest state education story of 2011 was the political war between Wisconsin teachers’ unions and GOP Gov. Scott Walker over the latter’s ultimately successful proposal (Act 10) to severely restrict collective bargaining rights for educators in the state. But as the law has labored its way through and been tested in the state’s courts, there’s been an interesting development—a small group of teachers has filed suit to uphold some of the act’s provisions.
The recent news involves recertification. The Wisconsin Education Association Council has a useful tipsheet on what recertification means, but essentially if a local union is “recertified” through an annual vote by its members, it can officially represent school employees to districts in negotiations, although under Act 10 the unions have extremely little leverage in those negotiations. Historically, the union points out, recertifying in this fashion has never existed, and WEAC has stressed to members that the process, instituted by Walker’s Act 10, “does not define us as a union” since the local union can exist and support members without getting recertified.
Why does this matter? As Jason Stein at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel writes, these recertification elections are difficult for unions to win. Opponents of Act 10 say that was Walker’s whole purpose: Elections in which the union loses its recertification bid are cynically designed to show “union failure.” Statistically, that argument isn’t always born out though: In 2011, out of 206 school-employee union recertification elections, 177 unions were recertified. But many unions don’t seek to recertify because of the high vote threshold required.
In a case involving recertification election with teachers in Madison and Milwaukee city workers, Wisconsin Circuit Court Judge Juan Colas ruled last year that the recertification processwere unconstitutional. And on Oct. 21, he found two members of the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission (WERC) in contempt for seeking to hold recertification elections for hundreds of other unions in the state. The commission members argued Colas’ ruling didn’t apply statewide, only to the Madison and Milwaukee elections.
But there’s now a suit by five teachers to allow the elections to proceed everywhere. These teachers argue the Colas ruling does not change the fact that Act 10 remains the law of the land, and that these recertifcation elections under Act 10 should go forward so that members can exercise their “right to vote,” according to the Associated Press.
Quoted in a press release from the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, a conservative think tank that filed the suit on behalf of the teachers and supports Act 10, one of the teachers, Nicholas Johnson of Milwaukee Public Schools, said, “In denying teachers the right to vote and take an active role in their profession, WERC is hindering rather than helping our livelihoods, our students, and ultimately the future of our nation.”
The state appealed Colas’ ruling regarding the constitutionality of Act 10, and the Wisconsin Court of Appeals and the state Supreme Court are both considering the case. Broadly speaking, Colas says Act 10 is unconstitutional because it unfairly discriminates against some unions. But the lawsuit by the teachers to allow the recertification elections is at least a small reminder that teachers’ political views, and their views of certain controversial laws, are not monolothic. It also reveals just how complicated the long legal fight over Act 10 has become.
A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.