Labor leaders and their allies were thrilled when a Wisconsin judge ruled on Friday that the state’s year-old right-to-work law – signed by Governor Scott Walker – violated the state’s constitution.
But several law professors predicted that the Wisconsin supreme court, on which conservative justices have a commanding 5-2 majority, would ultimately overturn the lower court judge’s decision and rule that the law does not violate the state constitution.
Walker and Wisconsin’s Republicans consolidated conservative control of the state supreme court last Tuesday when Rebecca Bradley – an outspoken conservative whom Walker had appointed to fill a vacancy left by a justice’s death – won a full 10-year term in a 53% to 47% vote. She was helped by $2.6m in spending from outside groups.
On Friday, William Foust, a state judge in Dane County, which includes Madison, ruled that the state’s right-to-work law was an unconstitutional taking of union property because it required unions to provide benefits to workers who didn’t pay any union dues or fees.
Paul Secunda, a labor law professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee, said he strongly agreed with the ruling. Then he added: “Will it be upheld? Absolutely not. It will be overturned by a very partisan Wisconsin supreme court, especially with this week’s election of a fifth conservative justice.”
When Walker signed the law in March 2015, it made Wisconsin the 25th state to adopt right-to-work, which bars any requirement that workers at unionized workplaces pay union fees. Unions are required to provide these non-payers – unions call them “free riders” – regular union services, such as representing them when they have grievances.
In the past five years, Indiana, Michigan and West Virginia have also enacted such laws, with Republicans championing them as measures that advance employee freedom and improve states’ business climates. Unions denounce these measures, saying they encourage free riders and are designed to undercut labor’s strength, membership and finances.
Business groups attacked Friday’s ruling and predicted that it would be overturned. Scott Manley, senior vice-president of government relations with Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce – the state’s leading business group – said: “The judge’s ruling is an act of blatant judicial activism that will not withstand appellate review. Judge Foust came to the absurd and legally untenable conclusion that labor unions have a property right to the wages of workers.”
Walker agreed, writing on Twitter: “We are confident Wisconsin’s freedom-to-work law is constitutional and will ultimately be upheld.”