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After heated debate, collective bargaining law to take effect Wednesday (UPDATE)

People react in the state Capitol in Madison moments after the Wisconsin Supreme Court came down with its ruling June 14 that reinstated Gov. Scott Walker's plan to all but end collective bargaining for tens of thousands of public workers. (AP Photo/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Tom Lynn)

Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — After months of heated debate, ear-splitting protests and legal maneuvering, Gov. Scott Walker’s divisive collective bargaining law is finally set to take effect.

Secretary of State Doug LaFollette published the law in the Wisconsin State Journal newspaper on Tuesday. The measure goes into effect Wednesday, capping an ugly four months in Madison that saw state senators flee the state and massive protests at the state Capitol.

“I think our Legislature could have done it better,” said Platteville City Manager Larry Bierke, who must negotiate new contracts with the city’s police dispatchers, water workers and public works workers under Walker’s law. “It was messy and it really doesn’t make Wisconsin look all that great. But in the end, this is what we were given from the state of Wisconsin and we will do everything we can to follow the state’s guidance.”

The law requires almost all public employees on all levels of government — from teachers to librarians to state Capitol janitors — to contribute more to their health care and pensions. The changes amount to an average 8 percent pay cut. The bill also strips them of almost all their collective bargaining rights, allowing them to negotiate only on wages.

Jodi Jensen, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Administration, said agency computer techs are busy reprogramming the state’s payroll system to reflect the changes. State workers should see the first reductions on their Aug. 25 paychecks, she said.

The picture for local governments and school districts looks a bit murkier.

Some districts and municipalities reached new contracts with different union chapters this spring ahead of the law, in some cases shielding workers from some of the law’s effects. At least 105 of the state’s 424 school districts, for example, had reached new deals with teachers between the bill’s introduction and February and Tuesday, according to the Wisconsin Association of School Boards.

But when those contracts expire, those unions will have to abide by Walker’s law. Other unions across the state that didn’t reach deals before Wednesday will have to do the same.

Walker ignited a national debate over labor rights when he introduced the plan in February. The Republican governor insisted the plan would generate savings to help plug the state’s $3.6 billion deficit and give local governments the flexibility they’d need to deal with deep cuts in state aid.

But Democrats saw the proposal as an attempt to weaken unions, one of their key constituencies. The 14 minority Democrats in the Senate fled the state in a futile attempt to block a vote. Teachers stayed away from school. And tens of thousands of demonstrators converged on the state Capitol to protest the bill, turning the building into an around-the-clock campground for weeks.

The Republican-controlled Legislature ultimately passed the proposal with the Senate Democrats. Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne filed a lawsuit in hopes of blocking the proposal, alleging Republican legislative leaders violated the state’s open meetings law during deliberations. Ozanne’s lawsuit threw the law into limbo until earlier this month, when the state Supreme Court’s conservative majority issued a ruling upholding the law and clearing the way for publication.

The fight isn’t over yet. Small bands of protesters still pack the Capitol rotunda daily during the noon hour, singing solidarity songs and chanting “Recall Walker!” Six Republicans and three Democratic senators face recall elections this summer over their positions on the plan. Meanwhile, a coalition of unions, including the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s largest teachers union, have filed a federal lawsuit in Madison alleging the law violates the U.S. Constitution by taking away union rights to bargain, organize and associate. The lawsuit seeks to block language erasing union rights but allows the higher pension and health care contributions.

“We were clear from early in that we believed we could reach concessions … without losing collective bargaining rights,” WEAC President Mary Bell said. The chaos introduced in moving to a different system was unnecessary.”

Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, didn’t immediately return messages.

But for now, at least, the plan is the law of the land.

“Now that Wisconsin has a balanced budget and these important reforms are going to be formally implemented, we are going to focus on moving forward together to get Wisconsin working again,” Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie said.

The city of Appleton is working on contracts with nearly a dozen union chapters covering park workers and clerical staff, among other positions. Sandy Neisen, the city’s human resources director, said Mayor Tim Hanna has appointed a transition team to help determine what the city will offer those workers under Walker’s law. The unions will no longer have any say in that process.

Neisen insisted city leaders don’t want to strip workers of all their benefits, but the law does provide an opportunity to standardize benefit plans that varied across the union chapters, such as implementing a single dental plan for all the workers.

“There is potential for ease of administration,” she said. “(City workers are) very, very fearful. The only way we can demonstrate to our employees is by our actions and show them. That’s what’s finally going to give them some comfort.”

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