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Judge blocks, expands ban on Scott Walker’union-busting law

Massive crowds gather to see the 14 democratic senators that left the state to protest the bill proposed by the Gov. Scott Walker at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, March 12, 2011. REUTERS/Darren Hauck

A Wisconsin judge issued a revised order on Tuesday blocking implementation of a controversial state law curbing collective bargaining by public unions while she hears a legal challenge to the proposed law.

Dane County Circuit Court Judge Maryann Sumi, who issued an injunction two weeks ago blocking the law, issued an amended order barring Secretary of State Doug La Follette from doing anything that would result in the measure from taking effect.

The measure, known as Wisconsin Act 10, was passed by the Republican-controlled state legislature and signed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker earlier this month. It bans collective bargaining by most public employees on anything other than base wages, and even those are tightly regulated.

Walker, who strongly pushed the legislation, said it was necessary part of a broader package to combat what he says is the state’s $3.6 billion budget deficit.

The fight over the Wisconsin law turned the state into a national flashpoint in much larger battle over workers rights amid huge state budget deficits and debt burdens. Protesters occupied the Wisconsin state capitol for weeks and staged the biggest demonstrations in Madison since the Vietnam War.

Other states are watching the Wisconsin battle. An Ohio House committee on Tuesday passed a bill that would restrict collective bargaining rights for about 350,000 public employees and ban them from striking.

The Wisconsin law has prompted several legal challenges, including the one Sumi is hearing filed by the Dane County district attorney, who alleges the Republican legislators who passed the law broke the state’s strict Open Meetings Laws.

The state Supreme Court has been asked to weigh in on the dispute but has so far not signaled whether it will do so.

Two weeks ago, Sumi issued an injunction halting the publication of the law by the secretary of state, the final step before it would take effect.

But last Friday, a state agency published the law despite Sumi’s original order, and Walker’s administration has begun to implement the measure’s provisions.

Walker insists the publication by the Legislative Reference Bureau means the law is now in effect. His lawyers also say the LRB’s action did not violate Sumi’s injunction since the agency was not specifically mentioned in the restraining order.

But Judge Sumi’s Tuesday order states: “La Follette, in his official capacity, is enjoined from designating the date of publication for 2011 Wisconsin Act 10, or any further implementation of 2011 Wisconsin Act 10, including but without limitation publishing in the official state newspaper … until further order of the court.”

The LRB is a nonpartisan agency whose director is appointed by the leaders of the Wisconsin State Assembly and Wisconsin State Senate — both Republicans who support the measure.

Democrats, organized labor and other opponents of the measure disagree and say the publication has no legal significance and that the law cannot take effect until their legal challenge is heard and La Follete officially publishes the act in the Wisconsin State Journal newspaper.

If the law is upheld, many of the things public workers now bargain for through their unions, including health insurance, pension benefits, work hours, vacation time and other conditions of employment, will have to be negotiated on a case-by-case by the individual workers themselves.

A spokesman for J.B. Van Hollen, the state attorney general who has been defending the law, said he was disappointed by the latest order and considering his options.

“As we told the court, we have serious concerns about the court’s decision to continue these proceedings under the current set of circumstances,” Bill Cosh said in a statement.

Copyright © 2011 Reuters