Wisconsin state judge strikes down collective bargaining law

MILWAUKEE Fri Sep 14, 2012 9:22pm EDT

A union iron worker attends a rally outside of the Capitol building to protest against a proposed bill by Republican Governor Scott Walker in Madison, Wisconsin February 21, 2011. REUTERS/Darren Hauck

A union iron worker attends a rally outside of the Capitol building to protest against a proposed bill by Republican Governor Scott Walker in Madison, Wisconsin February 21, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Darren Hauck

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MILWAUKEE (Reuters) - Wisconsin's controversial law that limited the rights of public sector unions and sparked recall elections was struck down on Friday by a Wisconsin judge.

Republican Governor Scott Walker, who survived a recall election earlier this year that stemmed from passage of the collective bargaining law, said after the ruling that he was confident the state would ultimately prevail in an appeal.

"Sadly a liberal activist judge in Dane County wants to go backwards and take away the lawmaking responsibilities of the legislature and the governor," Walker said in a statement.

The ruling on Friday by Dane County Circuit Court Judge Juan Colas stems from a challenge by unions representing Madison school teachers and Milwaukee city employees. It was unclear what immediate impact his ruling would have.

Colas ruled that eliminating collective bargaining rights for municipal employees including teachers violated the workers' right to free speech, association and equal protection.

He also ruled that the law's requirement that Milwaukee city workers make pension contributions violated a home-rule provision in the state constitution.

Several provisions "single out and encumber the rights of those employees who choose union membership and representation solely because of that association" in violation of their free speech and association rights, Colas found.

John Matthews, executive director for the union that represents about 5,000 Madison school district teachers, said the ruling "certainly has made people feel empowered again instead of feeling downtrodden and pushed aside."

"I think we are on pretty solid ground to withstand any appeals and any attempts by the far right to do away with union members' rights," Matthews said, adding that the agreement between Madison teachers and the district expires in June 2013.

Wisconsin's Republican-led legislature approved the sweeping changes to public sector union powers last year in sessions called to fix a state budget deficit, sparking massive union-backed protests and efforts to recall Walker.

Walker easily survived a recall election in June and has become a champion for fiscal conservatives.

The law forced most state workers, including teachers, to pay more for health insurance and pensions, limited their pay raises, made payment of union dues voluntary and forced unions to be recertified every year. Numerous legal challenges have been pursued.

Lester Pines, who represents the unions in the challenge, said Colas' ruling was broader than a ruling by a federal judge in March that struck down parts of the law that required annual recertification votes and made payment of dues voluntary.

(Additional reporting by David Bailey in Minneapolis; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker)

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