MADISON, Wis. (CN) - A divided Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld a law that significantly limits the collective bargaining rights of state employees on Thursday.
The law, known as Act 10, prohibited public workers from bargaining over anything except wages, ended the practice of automatic dues deduction from workers' paychecks and required challenging yearly votes for unions to remain certified. The law became the signature legislation for Gov. Scott Walker, giving the Republican a boost in an election year.
Thousands of union supporters protested the bill in the state's capitol. Unions challenged the law's constitutionality, claiming the law all but eliminated public sector unions and therefore violated union members' First Amendment rights.
In a 5-2 decision, the Wisconsin high court deemed the law constitutional.
"No matter the limitations or 'burdens' a legislative enactment places on the collective bargaining process, collective bargaining remains a creation of legislative grace and not constitutional obligation," Justice Michael J. Gableman wrote in the majority opinion. "The restrictions attached to the statutory scheme of collective bargaining are irrelevant in regards to freedom of association because no condition is being placed in the decision to participate. If a general employee participates in collective bargaining under Act 10's statutory framework, that general employee has not relinquished a constitutional right. They have only acquired a benefit to which they were never constitutionally entitled.
"The First Amendment cannot be used as a vehicle to expand the parameters of a benefit that it does not itself protect."
Judges Ann Walsh Bradley and Shirley S. Abrahamson dissented.
"Because Act 10 infringes on associational rights to organize by discouraging and punishing membership in collective bargaining units, it can survive strict scrutiny only if it is narrowly tailored to meet a compelling government interest," Walsh Bradley wrote. "The State has made no argument that Act 10 is narrowly tailored to meet a compelling government interest and has conceded that it cannot meet this standard."
Walker applauded the ruling.
"Act 10 has saved Wisconsin taxpayers more than $3 billion," Walker said in a statement. "Today's ruling is a victory for those hard-working taxpayers."
The decision was a huge blow to labor unions. Madison Teachers Inc., one of the plaintiffs, stated on its website that for the first time in state history the number of teachers leaving the profession through resignation will outnumber retirees, in large part to Act 10.
"The decision by the majority of the Supreme Court reversing MTI's victory in circuit court where Act 10 was found, in great part, to be unconstitutional, is not only extremely disappointing, but is morally bankrupt," MTI Executive Director John Matthews said in a statement.