By Ruth Conniff
This past Tuesday the Wisconsin Law Enforcement Association filed a suit in Dane County Circuit Court against Scott Walker and the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission for violation of their constitutional rights with the passage of Act 10, the law that removed meaningful collective bargaining rights from most public workers, and parts of Act 32 that modified the law.
While most public safety workers -- firefighters, police officers, state patrol officers -- were exempt from the law and retain their full bargaining rights, three groups of law enforcement workers were excluded from the definition of "public safety workers": the Capitol Police, the University of Wisconsin Police, and Department of Motor Vehicles field agents.
The Wisconsin Law Enforcement Association represents these three groups of workers, as well as the troopers, inspectors and dispatchers who work for the state patrol.
This suit comes two months after the September 14 victory of Madison Teachers Incorporated and Public Employees Local 61, a union representing City of Milwaukee workers, over Walker and the WERC in a similar lawsuit. Dane County Circuit Judge Juan Colas ruled that these laws violated the rights of free speech and association of these union members, as well as their right to equal protection under the law.
The WLEA complaint alleges that certain "provisions of Act 10 and Act 32 violate their associational, speech, petition and advocacy rights guaranteed by Art. I, §§ 3 & 4 of the Wisconsin Constitution, as well as their rights to equal protection under the law, as guaranteed by Art. I, § 1 of the Wisconsin Constitution."
This lawsuit may be even stronger than the MTI and Public Employees Local 61 case since it involves members of the very same union being treated differently under the law.
In their press release, WLEA officers said, "Act 10 was especially destructive to the WLEA. It fractured the union and the solidarity of its members, undermining their ability to join together and advocate for the best conditions to keep Wisconsin roads and communities safe."
Capitol Police Officer James Brooks sits on the WLEA Executive Committee and is a named plaintiff in the case. I spoke with him recently about the court case and his experience working at the Capitol. He remembers February 14, 2011, the first day of the massive protests at the Capitol, as one of the most difficult in his 13 years of working for the Capitol Police.
Brooks came in late to a meeting during which then-Deputy Secretary of the Department of Administration Cynthia Archer was informing the Capitol Police about the nature of the law that was proposed and the likelihood of protests in the building. He didn't understand that they were one of the few police forces in the state to be targeted by the law. He got called out of the meeting on a call "for a person who had a heart attack and died in one of our buildings." Brooks told me, "That was the first time I had to do a death notification. The entire family was very distraught. It was terrible."
The next day when he realized the full implications of the bill, he said he was "just awe-struck." It was a bizarre and completely unprecedented situation for the Capitol Police. "We just had the bomb dropped on us, and all of a sudden all these people showed up at the Capitol. At first we were scared for our safety." Brooks continued, "We soon found out these people were not angry with officers -- they were just regular people like you and me. In fact, we were getting patted on the back for doing a wonderful job."
On a few of his days off during the height of the protests, Brooks marched and demonstrated with Cops for Labor. But he draws a clear line between his job and his political activities. "If we want our opinions known on any topic, we don't do it on the job."
I pointed out that his lawsuit is partly based on an alleged violation of Article 1, Section 4, of the Wisconsin Constitution, the very same point of law that free speech activists and participants in the daily Solidarity Sing Along say protects the activities for which the Capitol Police have at this writing issued over 100 citations. When asked if he felt that was a contradiction, Officer Brooks declined to answer directly, but said, "We have a strange situation going on. We have protesters still today in the Capitol. We are arresting the protesters in the Capitol. Some of them do realize it and some of them don't, that we're closer to being on the same team than they think."
Whitney being arrested for holding a sign with the text of Article 1 Section 4 of the WI Constitution. Photo by Rebecca Kemble.
Brooks said that the WLEA did not undertake a recertification vote as required by Act 10, nor have they been collecting dues from members. They believe the law is unconstitutional and hope that it will be struck down. "We want to get the union back first," he said, "then start voting again and deciding about dues."
Rebecca Kemble reports for The Progressive magazine and website. She also participates when she can in the Solidarity Sing Along.
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