Thursday, May 26, 2011

Wisconsin judge voids anti-union law

* Wisconsin judge voids anti-union law

* Supreme Court of Wisconsin to consider appeal

* Law set off massive protests

By Jeff Mayers

MADISON, Wis., May 26 (Reuters) - A judge ruled on Thursday Wisconsin Republican lawmakers illegally pushed through a bill curbing the bargaining rights of public sector unions, voiding the law that had triggered large pro-labor protests.

Wisconsin Judge Maryann Sumi said frustrated Republicans violated the state's open meetings law in overcoming a stalemate with Democratic lawmakers who had fled the state and refused to vote on the Republican-backed bill.

Wisconsin was among several Republican-dominated U.S. states to pass anti-union laws this year, with proponents arguing budget-strapped states needed flexibility to cut costs in negotiations with public employees.

Critics viewed the anti-union laws as a Republican assault on unions and an attempt to hurt an important Democratic constituency and a key source of party funding.

The Wisconsin law, championed by Republican Governor Scott Walker, eliminated most collective bargaining rights for public sector unions, eliminated automatic deductions of union dues and raised worker contributions for pensions and health care.

The state's Supreme Court is expected to take up an appeal of Sumi's ruling. She had previously issued an injunction blocking the law.

A veteran Republican-backed justice on the state's high court was narrowly re-elected in November, with the race hinging on the collective bargaining law. Conservatives enjoy a majority on the state's highest court.

Democratic state chairman Mike Tate praised Judge Sumi's ruling, saying it would give polarized state leaders a chance to work out a solution "and get our fiscal house in order, not to tear our state apart."

Republican Scott Fitzgerald, majority leader of the Wisconsin Senate, blasted Sumi's ruling as judicial overreaching, challenging "whether one Madison judge can stand in the way of the other two democratically elected branches of government."

Fourteen Democratic state senators had protested Walker's proposal to curb public-sector unions by fleeing to Illinois, denying the chamber a quorum. But Republicans side-stepped the stalemate by stripping out financial elements of the bill.

Sumi, who was appointed by a Republican governor, ruled Republicans violated the open meetings law by hastily calling a meeting in March to pass the bill.

"The legislators were understandably frustrated by the stalemate existing on March 9, but that does not justify jettisoning compliance with the open meetings law in an attempt to move the budget repair bill to final action," Sumi wrote.

The legislators had the opportunity to correct their violation, but failed to do so, Sumi wrote.

As the state legislature debated the measure in late February and early March it triggered huge protests outside the state Capitol that on one occasion attracted nearly 100,000 demonstrators -- most opposed to the measure.

The dispute over the measure has sharply divided Wisconsin, a state that is fairly evenly between Democrats and Republicans, and spawned attempts to recall some legislators on both sides of the issue. Special state elections are expected to be held on July 12. (Reporting by Jeff Mayers, James B. Kelleher and David Bailey; Writing by James B. Kelleher; Editing by Greg McCune and Andrew Stern)

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