A rightwing legal group is suing the school district, school board, and teacher’s union in Madison, Wisconsin, for honoring a labor contract negotiated before the state supreme court upheld Governor Scott Walker’s divisive Act 10 law, ending most collective bargaining rights for most public employees.
The plaintiff in the suit is blogger David Blaska, who asserts that he is personally harmed, as a taxpayer, by a union contract that protects teachers’ wages, benefits, and working conditions.
The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL), the legal arm of the rightwing Bradley Foundation, filed the suit, after successfully suing the school district of Kenosha, Wisconsin, on similar grounds.
Around the same time the suit was filed, Governor Scott Walker blasted his opponent, Mary Burke, for supporting the teachers' contract as a member of the Madison school board, instead of using Act 10 to hold down costs.
The lawsuits in Madison and Kenosha show how aggressive the coordinated rightwing assault on labor rights in Wisconsin has been.
Wisconsin’s draconian Act 10, which labor historian Stephen Meyer called the most anti-labor piece of legislation since the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, was rammed through in 2011 using the pretext of what Walker described as a budget crisis.
The law was upheld July 31 by Wisconsin’s conservative-dominated supreme court, where “the scales of justice were tipped” by the weight of some $8 million in contributions from corporate and conservative interests, according to the progressive advocacy group One Wisconsin Now.
The majority, according to a dissenting opinion by justice Ann Walsh Bradley and chief justice Shirley Abrahamson, trampled “over a century’s worth of jurisprudence” thereby ”undermin(ing) a right long held sacred in our state.”
Before the supreme court’s ruling on Act 10, public employee unions in a handful of Wisconsin communities had managed to negotiate new labor agreements thanks to lower-court rulings, including one by Dane County judge Juan Colas, which temporarily ordered the state to stop enforcing the law. Challenging the Walker-appointed Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission, which continued enforcing provisions of Act 10 after his ruling, Colas asked, “What is it you don’t understand? You are enforcing a law which does not exist.”
During the reprieve created by the Colas ruling, public employee unions managed to negotiation a limited number of labor agreements.
After the supreme court acted, Wisconsin’s corporate/conservative establishment has not been content with stripping almost all of the state’s 280,000 public employees of their rights to a union voice. Instead, they aim to strangle each and every contract negotiated between the Colas ruling and final approval of Act 10 by the court.
A right-wing legal group closely connected to the far-right Bradley Foundation is trying to overturn each and every labor contract negotiated before the supreme court upheld Act 10.
The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty sued to overturn two one-year labor agreements between the Kenosha School Board and teachers and other workers represented by the Kenosha Education Association. The contracts provided a modest lump-sum increase of $1,100 in the 2013-14 school year, with the wage increase in the second year limited to the low rate of inflation. But faced with the pressure of WILL’s lawsuit, a newly-composed school board (elected with significant help from Americans for Prosperity, which spent historic sums on the race) backed down and negated the contracts. The Kenosha Education Association is fighting back and filed a judgment against school system to hold it to the contracts. The case will be coming before the courts this month.
The Madison School District also became a target of a WILL lawsuit seeking to negate two contracts with Madison Teachers, Inc., which run through June, 2016, with local right-wing blogger David Blaska fronting as plaintiff for WILL. The lawsuit has been greeted by a unified stance from both Madison Teachers, Inc., and the Madison school board, insisting that the contracts were legally negotiated.
“WILL certainly has the right to challenge the contracts,” Madison teachers' union president John Matthews said, “but I see such as a waste of money which could be used in educating children, and it causes unnecessary stress on district employees and the community. The contracts were negotiated at a time doing so was legal. There was nothing improper or illegal about it.”
Regardless of how WILL’s lawsuits ultimately play out, they show the tenacity with which the Bradley Foundation—America’s biggest rightwing foundation with $837.5 million in assets and over $34 million granted annually—battles to attack the right of workers to band together to bargain for better wages and working conditions.
Wisconsin workers desperately need those rights. ”Wisconsin public sector employees earn an average of $6,200 less than the national average” for public employees, according to a report by the Wisconsin Budget Project using Census figures. That works out to just $38,088 for public employees in Wisconsin. In the private sector, Wisconsin wages—hit hard by the effects of widespread offshoring—also lag behind the national average, by a sizable 15 percent.
But for the Bradley Foundation and its allies, the wages and benefits of Wisconsin workers, public and private, need further undermining. At the same time that Bradley, the Koch brothers, the American Legislative Exchange Council, and their partners act closely in concert to advance their agenda of deregulating industry and holding down corporate taxes, they seek to deny workers the right to act collectively and to have a voice in their workplaces. The Bradley Foundation has supported a wide variety of forces on the right—from Governor Scott Walker to the Heritage Foundation to the National Right to Work Foundation to the voter-suppression group True the Vote to WILL. Taken together, their efforts are clearly aimed at destroying workers’ influence in the workplace and at the ballot box.
Relentless in its drive to press down wages and benefits for all workers, the Bradley Foundation is extraordinarily generous with its allies. It provided a grant of $375,000 to WILL in 2012 and another $500,000 in 2013 to the rightwing legal group, whose lavish headquarters in a refurbished mansion are located around the corner from the mansion that houses the Bradley Foundation itself.
WILL President Richard Esenberg has seen his salary soar by more than 50 percent in two years, from $120,000 in 2011 to $182,500 for 2013.
Bradley’s largesse to WILL reflects the increasingly direct involvement in Wisconsin politics of the Bradley Foundation under its president Michael Grebe, Scott Walker’s former campaign chairman. Bradley’s past successes have been immensely destructive to democratic values in Wisconsin, the nation, and the world:
- ♣ Bradley has been central in the campaign to undermine public education with a campaign to show that public schools have "failed."
- ♣ It spent $1 million to give a glow of respectability to white supremacy by promoting the notorious book The Bell Curve proclaiming the genetic inferiority of blacks and Latinos;
- ♣ Bradley set the stage for the destruction of welfare benefits to single parents, a need long recognized and enshrined in the Social Security Act of 1935;
- ♣ Bradley played a crucial but little-known role in ramping up elite opinion for the disastrous Iraq war via the Project for a New American Century (See http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/Project_for_the_New_American_Century).
Like the Bradley Foundation’s past ventures, the anti-worker crusade of WILL bodes ill for Wisconsin and its working families, the basic pillars of political democracy, and popular hopes for a healthy and fair economy.
Roger Bybee is a labor reporter in Milwaukee and a frequent contributor to The Progressive.