A state appeals court dismissed a lawsuit Thursday from a Wisconsin public workers’ union regarding a request for additional paid leave days, saying unions cannot sue the state in this context.
According to documents from the District 4 Court of Appeals, the judge refused to hear the case because the state has sovereign immunity, meaning the state cannot be sued without the Legislature agreeing to the suit. Effectively, this means the principle of the state’s sovereign immunity prevented the Wisconsin State Employees Union’s suit, the court ruling discussion said.
WSEU sued the state regarding an agreement they had reached under former Gov. Jim Doyle requiring all state employees to take 16 furlough days, according to court papers. However, the court decision’s background noted WSEU, which bargains for many state workers, learned in 2011 the Association of State Prosecutors had limited its number of sabbatical days to only 10.
The labor union group sued in conjunction with the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees against the state.
The union filed suit in 2011 against the state of Wisconsin for the restoration of the six furlough days.
Last February, a circuit court denied a movement to dismiss the case based on sovereign immunity. Last week, Judge John C. Albert ruled sovereign immunity does apply in this case, overturning the circuit court’s earlier ruling.
Albert said concerns over fair treatment of workers were not at stake in this case.
“The issues before us do not require that we address the merits of WSEU’s argument that its members were treated unequally in violation of an agreement, a statute and an administrative rule,” he said in the official court decision.
The AFSCME issued a statement Thursday explaining it filed the lawsuit to argue the state should treat all workers fairly.
In the statement, AFSCME Executive Director Martin Beil said although disheartened by the ruling, AFSCME would continue to fight for fair treatment of workers.
“We’re disappointed that the court ignored this opportunity to reconsider the wall that the state has built for itself over the decades to hide behind and escape accountability,” Beil said in the statement.
He also said the court’s ruling was a failure to reconsider the barriers, such as the principle of sovereign immunity, that prevent the state from being held accountable to the people. Beil added he was disappointed in the court’s ruling because it reflects how people, especially workers, are treated unequally by the state.
The courts should honor agreements made between state legislation and unions, he said.
“Instead, the court held to the narrowest of reasoning to say, essentially, that the state doesn’t have to honor the contracts it makes.” Beil said.
The implications of this ruling signify the state cannot be considered honorable in any of the contracts it makes, not just those regarding union workers, Beil added.
According to Beil, the organization will continue to use all possible means in order to get fair treatment of its workers, which could include further court action or more collective bargaining.
“Again, we’re disappointed by this decision, but we will continue to use every means at our disposal — from courts to collective action — to fight for fair treatment of our members,” he said.