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As Judge Strikes Down Part of Scott Walker’s Anti-Union Law, Recall Takes Shape

As Swopa pointed out, a US district court judge overturned two provisions of Act 10, Scott Walker’s anti-union law in Wisconsin. The judge, Obama appointee William M. Conley, did not touch the provision most associated with the law, which removes all collective bargaining rights except circumscribed increases in pay for most public employees. However, Conley did strike down the measure that forced unions to annually re-certify with an “absolute” majority of all workers, and the “automatic dues” ban, which stopped union dues from being taken out of worker paychecks. Conley said in his opinion that the exemption for public safety workers from the rules (remember that these unions mostly supported Walker’s election back in 2010) made it so that the state was picking and choosing among workers to punish, violating equal protection laws.

This being a federal lawsuit, it sidesteps the brick wall that is the Wisconsin Supreme Court. However, the Walker Administration can appeal the ruling, first to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals and then, if necessary, to the Supreme Court. So there are plenty of opportunities for this to get overturned. And anyway, the main thrust of the law, stripping collective bargaining rights, stays intact. This is the provision that, over time, should be expected to wear down public employee unions in Wisconsin and ultimately end them. If they don’t have to re-certify annually, that helps slow that process; but over time, workers will wonder about the union’s purpose if they cannot collectively bargain for their rights.

In the short term, however, this returns to the fore the primary motivating factor for the Wisconsin recalls, which were just triggered yesterday. The primary elections will be on May 8, with the general election on June 5. So this ruling will be well on the minds of voters and could play a role in the elections.

We learned quite a bit more about those elections yesterday. First, the four state Senate races will feature “fake” primary opponents for the Democratic challengers. Basically, recalls work like regular elections in Wisconsin, only if there aren’t multiple candidates in either party, the primary election is waived and we go immediately to the general election. Democrats lined up their challengers a long time ago, so there weren’t going to be primaries on their side, which meant the recall general elections wouldn’t line up with the general election for Scott Walker’s recall (there will be a contested Democratic primary for Governor). So Republicans will enter “fake” opponents to keep the timing, so that all the elections happen with a primary on May 8 and a general election on June 5. This also gives the targeted Republican state senators, all of whom voted for the anti-union law, more time to raise money before the election. One of those four senators, Pam Galloway, actually resigned her seat in the state Senate, so a replacement, State Rep. Jerry Petrowski, will run. Petrowski also voted for Walker’s anti-union law.

As for that gubernatorial primary, another high-profile candidate jumped into the race:

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who lost to Scott Walker in Wisconsin’s 2010 gubernatorial race by 125,000 votes, wants another shot at governor.

On Friday afternoon, Barrett announced he would seek the Democratic nomination in Wisconsin’s recall race. Barrett faces former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, a union favorite; state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout; and Secretary of State Doug LaFollette. Barrett said in a statement that Gov. Walker has “divided our state like never before and presided over a Wisconsin economy that last year lost more jobs than any state in the country.”

He continued: “He ‘dropped the bomb,’ as he said, and ended 50 years of labor peace and worker protections—something he never said he’d do during the 2010 campaign. I know, because I was there. As governor, I will fight to restore collective bargaining rights, because it’s the right thing to do, and it’s necessary to heal Wisconsin.”

That last bit is important. Unions have been upset with Barrett for his handling of the city budget and public school system, using Walker’s anti-union law to reduce union pensions in Milwaukee. This put him at odds with his own city attorney and really incensed public employee unions. Barrett contends he was merely following the law in the state.

Kathleen Falk has lined up union support from the Wisconsin Education Association Council and the local chapter of AFSCME. It seems inconceivable that an election predicated on an assault on unions would not end up with the union-backed challenger winning the primary. But Barrett has higher name recognition from the 2010 race and has a lead in the high single digits in most primary polling. In the general election, Barrett and Falk run neck-and-neck with Walker. No doubt Barrett will say he will overturn the collective bargaining provisions as Governor, as will Falk. But this sets up a pretty divisive primary that could damage the ultimate victor in the general election.

Oddly enough, Barrett has an election next week, for Mayor of Milwaukee. He’s widely expected to win. His announcement of his gubernatorial candidacy is here.

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David Dayen

David Dayen