Federal Judge: Government Union Monopoly Bargaining May ‘Rationally’ Lead to ‘Limitations on Base Wage Increases’

Yesterday U.S. District Judge William Conley rejected one of the multiple legal attacks government union bosses have launched against Act 10, the pro-Right to Work labor-policy and budgetary-reform package adopted by the Wisconsin Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Scott Walker in early 2011.

As Conley points out in his opinion (see the link below), a number of the contentions advanced by the union-boss plaintiffs in this case, Laborers Local 236, AFL-CIO v. Walker, have already been put forth and dismissed in federal court.

One novel claim considered in yesterday’s case is of special interest.  Conley quotes the plaintiffs’ contention that Act 10 puts unionized public employees at a disadvantage, “based on their exercise of a fundamental right of freedom of expression,” by, among other things, imposing “limitations on base wage increases for represented employees that are not imposed on” union-free employees.

The plaintiffs here reference an Act 10 provision saying that government union officials negotiating for employees covered under the law cannot secure base wage increases higher than the rate of inflation unless the increases are approved by a referendum in the jurisdiction where they occur.

Conley responded that it is in fact “rational’ for elected officials to put special restrictions on base wage increases for unionized employees.  Quoting the respondents, he noted that when a public employer

negotiates with its employees on an individual basis, it can easily manage the overall budget impact of wage increases by offsetting higher wage increases for well-performing employees with lower wage increases for other employees. When the employer is negotiating with a bargaining representative, the ability to offset higher-than-average wage increases with corresponding lower-than-average increases is constrained, if not eliminated, by i) the substantially reduced number of wage classifications at issue, in comparison to the total number of individual employees, and ii) the bargaining representative’s obligation to represent the interests of the entire bargaining unit.

Finding nothing in the plaintiffs’ arguments to rebut this reasoning, Conley concluded that the court

“is satisfied that differential treatment of represented employees as compared to unrepresented employees with respect to bargaining over wages and conditions of employment passes rational basis review.”

All this really means is that union monopoly bargaining often makes it unfeasible for employers to reward their best employees with higher pay raises, and Act 10 simply adjusts public policy to recognize that fact.

Together with the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation assisted two public employees whose Right to Work was at stake in Laborers Local 236 v Walker, and filed an amicus curiae brief on their behalf.  Agreeing that it is “at least” arguable that these employees “have a unique perspective on the First Amendment implications of Act 10,” Conley wrote that the court “considered” this brief in “rendering its decision.”

Court Order granting Defendants’ motion for judgment on the pleadings