Wisconsin's right-to-work law, heralded by Republican Gov. Scott Walker as he was mounting his run for president, was struck down as violating the state constitution. The Wisconsin law, which barred unions from requiring workers in the private sector to pay the equivalent of union dues, was deemed a violation of the state’s Constitution by Judge C. William Foust of Dane County Circuit Court.
Three unions – Machinists Local Lodge 1061 in Milwaukee, the Wisconsin AFL-CIO chapter, and United Steelworkers District 2 in Menasha – filed the lawsuit last year shortly after Gov. Walker signed the right-to-work bill into law. Right-to-work laws prohibit businesses and unions from reaching agreements that require all workers, not just union members, to pay union dues. Twenty-five other states currently have such laws. Attorney Erin Mediros represents all three unions.
The unions argued that Wisconsin’s law was an unconstitutional seizure of union property since unions now must extend benefits to workers who don’t pay dues. Dane County Circuit Judge William Foust agreed that the right-to-work law amounts to the government taking union funds without compensation since under the law unions must represent people who don’t pay dues.
“While (union) losses today could be characterized by some as minor, they are not isolated and the impact of (the law) over time is threatening to the unions’ very economic viability,” he wrote. Judge Foust wrote that the right-to-work law presents an existential threat to unions. Noting that no other state court had struck down a right-to-work law on the same grounds, Foust made it clear he was not obligated to follow the decisions of other states.
Republicans who backed the law dismissed the ruling, saying it will be reversed.
“Once again, a liberal Dane County judge is trying to legislate from the bench,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) said in a statement. “No one should be forced to join a union or pay union dues as a condition of employment.”
Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel promised to appeal the decision. Also Republican, Schimel said he was confident it would not stand. Schimel has not made a decision on whether to seek an immediate suspension of the ruling while the appeal is pending.
Gov. Walker took to Twitter upon hearing the court’s decision to write, "We are confident Wisconsin's freedom-to-work law is constitutional and will ultimately be upheld.”
The industrial Midwest – a region where organized labor has been weakened by a series of new laws in recent years – hailed the decision as a victory for the middle class and working families. Democratic and union leaders cheered the ruling, but its fate may be uncertain due to the widespread Republican discussion of appeal.
“The extreme right-wing Republican agenda has been incredibly harmful to working people and businesses in Wisconsin,” said Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca.
Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, said the ruling was a “needed check on Scott Walker’s attacks on working families.” “Right to work has always been unjust, now it’s proven unconstitutional,” he said.
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Supporters of right-to-work laws view them as giving workers the freedom to choose whether to join a union. Opponents believe the laws weaken unions by depriving them of the dues from workers who choose not to pay them, resulting in lower wages and fewer employee rights. Opponents also believe the Republican-backed law is intended to undermine unions’ political power because unions tend to vote Democrat.
“Labor is a commodity that can be bought and sold,” Judge Foust wrote in his ruling. “A doctor, a telephone company, a mechanic — all would be shocked to find they do not own the services they perform,” he said, adding later: “Unions are no different; they have legally protectable property interest in the services they perform for their members and nonmembers.”