Jeffery Phelps / AP

Wisconsin’s highest court upholds anti-union and voter ID laws

Republican Gov. Scott Walker hails ‘victory’ on union-curbing law, which sparked major protests in 2011

Wisconsin’s Supreme Court on Thursday upheld two laws dear to the state’s conservative government: curbs on public sector labor unions, and requirements that voters bring ID cards to the polls. Both laws have been the subject of multiple lawsuits saying they violate protections guaranteed by the Constitution.

The court upheld the union-curbing law 5–2 under a challenge filed by the Madison teachers’ union and another representing Milwaukee public workers. They had argued that the law violated workers’ constitutional rights to free assembly and equal protection.

The court ruled that Wisconsin’s 2011 collective bargaining reforms do not violate the free speech and equal protection rights of public sector union workers, and that such union members do not have a constitutional right to negotiate with their employer for wages and on other matters.

Union advocates say collective bargaining drives down costs for health care. The reforms, passed by Republican lawmakers, severely limit the bargaining power of public sector unions while forcing most state workers to pay more for benefits such as health insurance and pensions. Wisconsin's Republican Gov. Scott Walker has said what they pay is still less than workers in the private sector. 

The court wrote in its opinion, “The plaintiffs remain free to advance any position, on any topic, either individually or in concert, through any channels that are open to the public.”

Federal courts have upheld the law in two cases, including a ruling by Federal Judge William Conley last September. Conley also ruled that the First Amendment grants public employees the right to free speech and association, but does not grant them collective bargaining rights.

The reforms, which do not apply to public safety workers, also made payment of union dues voluntary and forced unions to be recertified every year.

The law resulted in large demonstrations in Madison — and efforts to recall Walker and some Republican lawmakers who supported the legislation. Walker survived a recall election in 2012.

Walker called this week’s ruling “a victory” for “hard-working taxpayers” in a statement.

The court this week also upheld a law mandating that voters present identification in order to vote — but that statute had already been blocked by a federal court in Milwaukee in April.

Opponents say the voter law presents an unfair hurdle to people who lack identification — which costs money to get from the state — and would strip the poor of the right to vote, disproportionately affecting ethnic minorities.

Federal law, much of it passed during the social strife of the 1960s, attempts to ensure voting rights for all, but such legislation has recently faced significant reinterpretation by the U.S. Supreme Court. The federal laws were originally meant to prevent states from passing legislation that would prevent or discourage black people from voting. 

The ruling of the federal judge in Wisconsin is under appeal, and a federal appeals court would have to overturn it for the law to take effect.

Four lawsuits have been filed over Wisconsin's voting rights law, which like the union-curbing law was passed in 2011. 

The League of Women Voters brought one of the suits against the voting law. The other came from the Milwaukee branch of the NAACP and immigrant rights group Voces de la Frontera. 

Al Jazeera and wire services

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