The Wisconsin Supreme Court election is one of the most important political races in the United States this year, promising to have a big impact on union members and working families.
|Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz, candidate for Wisconsin Supreme Court.
The choice is clear, and the IBEW is on the front lines in the Badger State, working to get Janet Protasiewicz elected.
Known as “Judge Janet” to her supporters, Protasiewicz — a former prosecutor who has served as a Milwaukee County judge since 2014 — finished first in the four-candidate primary in February, setting the stage for a two-person race. She’s avoided being pinned down on issues that might appear before the court but she’s made clear she supports the rights of men and women seeking to join unions and organize workers.
A win for her in the April 4 general election over her far-right opponent, Dan Kelly, would give working families a 4-3 edge on the seven-member court, which has played a key role in the state government’s war on workers during the past decade.
Wisconsin, which once was considered one of the most union-friendly states in the country, in recent years passed a right-to-work law and did away with project labor agreements. The state Supreme Court made it easier to do that by allowing a heavily gerrymandered legislative map favoring the GOP to stand in 2011, even though vote totals show the state is almost evenly split between the two major parties.
“The loss of PLAs really hurt us,” said Milwaukee Local 494 Business Manager Dean Warsh, also president of the IBEW’s Wisconsin State Conference.
Warsh said the assault on labor has slowed under Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who hasn’t hesitated to use his veto pen and was reelected in November.
But the GOP continues to have substantial majorities in the statehouse. That likely won’t change without redistricting to correct the gerrymander and allow union-friendly legislators to squash attempts to roll back legislation intended to punish labor.
That gets everyone back to the April election. Anti-union justices now have a 4-3 majority, but one of its members is retiring. Simply put, a Protasiewicz win levels the playing field and gives working families and their allies a fighting chance.
“The rulings of this court and all the bad laws and regulations passed under the previous governor (Scott Walker) still haunt us,” Warsh said. “They have done everything to crush us, but it has only made us stronger.”
Wisconsin’s court has broad powers under the state’s constitution. Justices serve 10-year terms, and although elections are officially nonpartisan, they typically pit pro-worker against anti-union candidates.
|Yard signs for some of the candidates endorsed by Milwaukee Local 494, including Protasiewicz and Sara Geenen for the state court of appeals.
Well-funded groups have been trying to influence the outcome, and conservatives have controlled the court for 14 years. The notoriously anti-union Walker and his supporters were energized, knowing it would side with them on most issues.
But now, unions and their allies in Wisconsin have some hope. They also can look to Midwestern neighbor Michigan, which is on the verge of repealing its so-called right-to-work law and reinstituting PLAs, for some inspiration.
And, if that weren’t enough motivation, there’s this:
Kelly, Protasiewicz’ opponent in April, was part of the conservative bloc on the state Supreme Court until being voted out in 2020, four years after Walker appointed him to fill a vacancy in 2016. He continues to proudly tout his ties to far-right interests.
He finished second in the primary, nearly 22 percentage points behind Protasiewicz, but the general election is expected to be much closer. Another conservative candidate who split the far-right vote with him is not on the general election ballot.
“Judge Janet’s victory in the primary was a clear sign that working families of Wisconsin want an impartial champion elected to fill the open seat. We are long overdue in having the rule of law and common sense placed above the partisan games that have plagued our court under the current majority,” Warsh said.
A Protasiewicz victory also would be a pushback against moves making it harder for Wisconsin citizens to vote. The state has become a hotbed for lawsuits on the issue because it is an important swing state in presidential elections.
Last summer, the state Supreme Court ruled that drop boxes used or absentee ballots were illegal. It has ruled that attempts by the GOP-controlled legislature to purge the voting rolls were legal.
Local 494 Political Director Ryan Neibauer said the state conference is working with the Wisconsin AFL-CIO to reach every union member in the state and as many other voters as possible. Volunteers are visiting jobsites and knocking on doors to remind them what is at stake. Others are in phone banks.
Members are encouraged to reach out to their local union leaders if they are interested in volunteering themselves. The stakes are high.
“We’re letting people know that labor is supporting Judge Janet, and we think that can pull her across the finish line with a win,” Neibauer said. “There are so many things on the table and so many things we can do with a pro-worker majority.”
Kelly has ties to far-right corporate interests, but the Protasiewicz campaign has more than held its own in fundraising. Thus far, it has raised far more money and has been far more active in Wisconsin television markets, according to The New York Times.
“We raised enough to balance things out and go up with ads on TV instantly,” Neibauer said.
The Wisconsin State Conference also has endorsed Jodi Habush Sinkykin in a special election to fill a vacant seat in the state’s 8th Senatorial District, just north of Milwaukee. Habush Sinkykin and her husband have owned a factory that employs union workers for nearly 30 years.
In addition, the state conference endorses Sara Geenen and Chris Taylor for the state court of appeals, as well as numerous school board candidates throughout Wisconsin. School boards often decide what contractors to use on public projects.