When Dane County Circuit Court Judge Juan Colas held officials in Gov. Scott Walker's administration in contempt this week, he was pushing back against a level of unchecked lawlessness by this administration that is "practically seditious," says attorney Lester Pines.
Colas had already ruled a year ago that parts of Act 10 -- the law that ended most collective bargaining rights for most public employees -- were unconstitutional. This included Act 10's requirement that unions hold annual recertification elections. But commissioners at the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission decided to ignore that decision. They went ahead and prepared for recertification elections for more than 400 school district and worker unions in November.
"The commissioners knew full well" they were flouting the court, Colas said, despite their cute argument that the word "unconstitutional" applied only to the specific plaintiffs in the case -- teachers in Madison and city workers in Milwaukee.
As John Matthews, executive director of Madison Teachers Inc., put it, Colas' decision "is one of the most important decisions not only in public-sector labor history, but also in democracy."
The principle here is simple. If a law is unconstitutional on its face, it's unconstitutional in every case. That has always been understood in Wisconsin courts. And, Judge Colas pointed out, the Walker officials understood it, too.
The practical effects of Colas' decision for teachers, janitors, clerks and other public workers in cities and towns all over the state are still unclear. In the short term, their unions will still represent them, and won't have to hold elections in November to continue to exist.
Matthews is urging his fellow union leaders to fight.
"All WEAC, all AFSCME, SEIU and building trades unions... should immediately make a demand to bargain with school districts, cities, towns, counties, etc., and if the employer refuses or delays, the unions should file a prohibited practices complaint with WERC. And if WERC refuses or delays in processing it and ordering the employer to bargain, the union should seek another contempt of court ruling."
But there is not a lot of time before the state Supreme Court hears an appeal. And, as we all know, the Wisconsin Supreme Court is dominated by the same right-wingers and big-money interests that brought us Act 10.
Whatever the outcome, the Colas decision has tremendous importance, and not just for labor rights.
By ignoring the courts, impugning judges' integrity and spreading the idea that individual judges' decisions don't carry any weight, the Walker administration has challenged the integrity of the legal system itself.
"It's extraordinary," says Pines. "It was the most contemptuous thing I've ever seen."
The truly pernicious idea behind Act 10 is to profoundly change the balance of power in our state.
First, for public workers, it shifted control over wages, hours and benefits solely to their employers. Workers lost their voice.
Politically, by decimating unions, it struck a body blow to the main funders and organizers of Democratic campaigns. Business interests eliminated their competition in the campaign-spending arms race.
Finally, Act 10 set up a system so members of unions would choose, themselves, not to have unions any longer.
That's the path to the right-wing billionaires' dream of making Wisconsin a "right to work" state. Unions are so disenfranchised that workers decide it's not worth paying dues. Citizens are so cynical and intimidated they give up on the rule of law.
Part of the program is the "propaganda campaign to convince people that judges' decisions have no meaning," Pines says. "It's shocking to me that lawyers are not talking about this."
It's a glimmer, he says, of what it's like to live in an authoritarian regime.
"When extremists are in power, people don't know what the consequence of speaking up might be. Especially in a bad economy, no one wants to stick their neck out."
In a nascent democracy like Egypt, it's not uncommon that when courts make decisions the rulers don't like, they are simply ignored. But that's not how it's supposed to work in the United States.
"We've got over 200 years of respect for the power of the courts" in this country, Pines adds. "But it's a power based on respect."
That's what's at stake here. It ought to trouble anyone who cares about democracy -- including the conservative justices on the state Supreme Court.
Photo: Flickr user Richard Hurd, creative commons licensed.