Public workers prepare for strike, but experts disagree on lawfulness of action
Wisconsin budget protests
School districts and unions are making plans in case strikes are in their future, but educators and law experts disagree on whether the provisions in the state budget repair bill would make public employee strikes legal.
Gov. Scott Walker's budget repair bill would strip most collective bargaining rights from unions representing public employees. That has schools and union leaders prepping for a worst-case scenario, which could involve a strike immediately after the legislation is passed.
A Madison-area chapter of the AFL-CIO voted Monday to endorse a general strike, and "begin educating affiliates and members on the organization and function of a general strike," according to a news release.
The group has 45,000 members represented by 97 unions of public- and private-sector workers in southcentral Wisconsin.
Officials in the Evansville School District have been discussing what to do in case of a large-scale strike, District Administrator Heidi Carvin said. Discussion started at a Thursday morning board meeting, followed by a meeting with building administrators and support staff, she said.
"We've been assured the Teamsters are directing school personnel not to strike," she said. "I believe WEAC is taking that approach, and I don't believe it's very likely that there would be a strike."
In Evansville, the Teamsters represent food service and custodial staff.
If the district would have to close school instructionally, buses would run as normal and all staff would have to report or be disciplined, she said.
"We would provide food and activities for students during normal school hours and try to match a learning environment as much as possible," she said.
Each school is developing a contingency plan with options based on the number of students and staff who do report, she said.
Strikes by public employees are illegal in Wisconsin, but Paul Secunda, Marquette University Law School associate professor, said laws vary between state and municipal workers. Contract language also makes a difference.
"There is a limited right to strike based on going through mediation and the arbitration process, but of course the bill would get rid of all that," he said. "Maybe all bets are off if this legislation goes through."
Janesville Education Association President Dave Parr isn't so sure.
He said unions are prohibited from striking as long as there is arbitration. Since Walker's proposal permits negotiation of wages, it could prevent a legal work-stoppage.
Parr said the mood among Janesville's teachers isn't improving. Several teachers called him this week asking about rumors of a strike after they heard what Madison's AFL-CIO discussed.
"They're very upset," Parr said. "Our future is very unclear, and nobody likes to have to go in front of students and teach about hope when everything is unclear and murky. It's a challenge."
The governor's office didn't immediately return calls Thursday seeking comment about a potential strike. However, Walker's budget repair bill might have already provided cover.
A "state of emergency" provision authorizes "a state agency to discharge any state employee who fails to report to work as scheduled for any three unexcused working days during a state of emergency or who participates in a strike, work stoppage, sit-down, stay-in, slowdown, or other concerted activities …"
A general strike, discussed by the Madison-area AFL-CIO, might circumvent that provision. A general strike involves several unions—public and private. Some of which might not immediately feel the effects of the bill.
Secunda said there hasn't been a general strike in the U.S. since 1968. That's when Martin Luther King Jr. marched with sanitation workers in Memphis, boycotting unfair treatment and harsh working conditions.
"There would have to be some legal analysis done," Secunda said, "but I think, personally, the public sector does have the ability to engage in a work stoppage if this law is enacted."