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Monday, September 1, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 70.0° F  Overcast
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Act 10 on hold, Madison city employee unions rush to renew contracts
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Attendees from AFSCME and MTI cheered from the wings when the contracts were approved.
Credit:Nora G. Hertel

Dozens of union members in green AFSCME and red MTI shirts watched while the 14 present members of the Madison Common Council voted unanimously Thursday afternoon in a special session to approve new labor contracts with city employees.

"We're here as MTI to support AFSCME," said Amy Turkowski. "Their fight is our fight."

The city approved new contracts for AFSCME Local 60, AFL-CIO, and the Building and Construction Trades Council of South Central Wisconsin into March 2015. They also extended a contract with the Madison City Attorney's Association through December 2014.

The new contract with AFSCME Local 60 and the AFL-CIO General Unit includes language to allow the city and union to work together to avoid layoffs. The agreement also allows the city to reduce wages by up to 3% beginning March 16, 2014 and provide a three percent wage increase for the final pay period of December 2014.

The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists, and Allied Crafts of the United States, It's Territories, and Canada were on the special agenda for a contract extension, but elected to wait until the October council meeting to review the decision with is board first.

But there is no guarantee that it will still be allowed to bargain at that time. A recent ruling by Dane County Circuit Judge Juan Colas declared Act 10's ban on collective bargaining unconstitutional. That means, for the time being, unions have the leeway to bargain for their benefits and wages.

Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen requested a stay immediately after Colas' decision to keep the law active until Colas' decision can be considered by an appeals court.

"[It's] not clear how long the window will be open," says Paul M. Secunda, associate professor at Marquette University Law School. "[There's] a lot of uncertainty and confusion, because neither side knows exactly what they should do."

Prior to Act 10's initial enactment, municipalities and school districts that supported labor unions "went out of their way to negotiate new contracts," recalls Secunda.

And in the last week, due to Colas' ruling, the Madison School Board and the Dane County Board announced they would begin negotiations with unions to extend contracts. While these contracts will likely stand irrespective of future court rulings, the impact of Act 10 remains uncertain.

"It's an area of the law that's not well developed," says Secunda. "And these are serious and important legal conclusions that Judge Colas has come to, and they need to go through a deliberative legal process."

Considering the controversy that ensued last year when the Wisconsin Supreme Court abridged the appeals process to rule on the open meeting law, Secunda anticipates that the high court "might be a little more circumspect," and allow the Act 10 ruling to pass "through the normal channel of the intermediate court of appeals."

He says the outcome will depend on how the judges view Colas' reasoning.

Colas struck down Act 10, says Secunda, because it treats municipal employees represented by unions differently from non-union workers. That raises questions about freedom of speech, equal protection and association.

During the special meeting Thursday, Mayor Paul Soglin and union members spoke favorably about collective bargaining and the speed with which the city and unions approved the contract extension.

Jennifer McCulley, the staff representative of AFSCME, read some words of gratitude to the council, though admitted afterward that the process was rushed. "[There's] never enough time," she said. "We did what we needed to do in the short amount of time that we had."

Greg Leifer, employee and labor relations manager for the city, explained the implications of the vote to the council before the vote. Attendees from AFSCME and Madison Teachers Inc. cheered from the wings when the contracts were approved.

MTI members have yet to ratify their contract, but they will exchange agreements with the school board on Sunday and begin negotiations on Monday.

As for the fate of Act 10, says Secunda, "we might not know for a very long time how all this is going to come out. It could be a couple months if the courts take a more aggressive stance... If it goes through a more normal appeals process it could take a couple years. We're really in no man's land."

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