MADISON, Wis.—Wisconsin’s highest court upheld a law ending most collective-bargaining rights for government employees in the state, a blow for public-sector unions that have been stymied in their efforts to reverse the controversial measure championed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
The law, passed in 2011, rocked the state, leading to mass protests and recall elections, while making Mr. Walker a favorite of conservatives across the country. The measure put Wisconsin at the center of a national debate over the role of public-employee unions, particularly in the wake of a recession that battered government finances.
Thursday’s decision was seen as a last chance in the courts for labor leaders to upend the collective-bargaining law, since the justices hadn’t yet weighed in on its merits. Unions for teachers and local-government workers had won the case at the circuit court level, where a judge in 2012 struck down parts of the law, such as requiring unions to negotiate only over wages and mandating that union locals hold regular elections to recertify their representation of workers.
But the justices, in a 5-2 ruling, reversed that decision, upholding the law known as Act 10 in full and dismissing arguments that it violates rights to equal protection and free association. While technically nonpartisan, the seven-member court has a four-member conservative voting bloc. Justice N. Patrick Crooks sided with the four justices in Thursday’s ruling, writing in a separate opinion that while the law is constitutional, the damage it inflicted on organized labor was unnecessary.
The court ruling was celebrated by Republicans, who control not only the governorship, but the state senate and assembly. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos tweeted: “It is a great day for Wisconsin conservatives,” while Mr. Walker called the ruling “a victory for those hard-working taxpayers.”
The ruling likely marks the end of legal challenges to the act, as unions increasingly are forced to find ways to reinvent themselves under the law’s constraints. Unions haven’t been able to win changes to Act 10 in the Legislature, and overhauling the law is getting little attention from Democrat Mary Burke, who is running against Mr. Walker this fall. A spokesman for Ms. Burke said Thursday’s ruling doesn’t change the focus of the campaign on jobs. She is in a dead heat with Mr. Walker, according to a recent Marquette Law School Poll.
Teachers unions in Wisconsin have accelerated efforts to merge and to reexamine their recruiting efforts in the face of grim membership numbers. The state’s largest teachers union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, has lost more than a third of its members since Act 10, dropping to about 60,000 members from about 98,000. The AFT-Wisconsin union is now less than half its former size, with about 6,500 members, down from 16,000 three years ago.
“Long term, the strategy is to get collective bargaining back. But at this point, Act 10 is done,” said Kim Kohlhaas, president of AFT-Wisconsin.
Attorney Lester Pines, who represented the unions in the Supreme Court case, cast the declining numbers in a positive light, saying he was amazed any public-sector unions have survived under the requirements of law. He said the law is forcing labor leaders to focus on activism rather than negotiations, a shift that is under way and building.
In a separate ruling released Thursday, Wisconsin’s Supreme Court upheld the state’s voter identification law, which requires a residents to present photo ID at the polls. Such laws have become increasingly popular in mostly Republican-controlled states in recent years. The Wisconsin law still won’t be in effect because of a pending federal-court challenge.