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Wisconsin Prison Guard Union Faces Challenges

Wisconsin Prison Guard Union Faces Challenges

by Derek Gilna

A 2013 memo issued by then-incoming Wisconsin Department of Corrections (DOC) Secretary Edward F. Wall, in which he warned DOC employees to stop spreading rumors, was apparently another example of contentious relations between the state and its prison guards, and among the guards themselves.

Wall’s memo to a department worker, obtained by the Associated Press and published on February 1, 2013, warned DOC staff to stop spreading “false and malicious information,” which he said was undermining morale. The memo was verified by Wall’s office.

Wall was reacting to rumors which falsely claimed that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was considering privatizing the state’s prison system and that the state was building another prison, and which spread “exaggerated descriptions of physical trauma suffered by” DOC employees in prisoner-on-staff assaults. Wall felt that publicity about the assaults was unwarranted, yet added, “It doesn’t mean that the assaults were not serious ... but that the resulting physical trauma may not have been as serious as described....”

In 2011, Walker had approved a change in Wisconsin law that stripped public unions in the state of most of their collective bargaining rights and made union membership voluntary. It also made it more difficult for unions to win recognition from the state.

Under the law, known as Act 10, unions may bargain over wages but are prohibited from negotiating over working conditions, overtime, sick leave and a variety of other issues, as they could before Act 10 was approved. At the time, collective bargaining had been criticized as giving unions too much power in the workplace.

Marty Biel, head of the 1,900-member Wisconsin State Employees Union (WSEU), said the change in the law made prison workers feel unsafe, leading to an increasing number of assaults on staff.

He did not explain how the new labor rules, instituted as a way to save money for a state that was running a large deficit in all departments, including corrections, could somehow cause a sudden increase in assaults on prison staff, and neither he nor the union released statistical data to substantiate that claim.

Further, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) union spokesman Gary Biel complained about lack of staff training, short-staffing and a lack of administrative concern for DOC employees.

Prison workers “have no due process, in fact less than most inmates, and feel isolated and on their own.... In some areas [guards] spend more time with inmates than with their families,” Biel said.

Another fallout from Act 10 was the decertification of 5,400 unionized prison workers who broke away from the WSEU in July 2013 to form a rival union, the Wisconsin Association for Correctional Law Enforcement (WACLE).

Act 10 requires unions to conduct annual votes in which at least 51% of the membership supports the union. In July 2014, the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission ruled that WACLE had not received enough votes to be recognized by the state because most of the eligible 5,400 workers did not vote.

Organizers of the new union have also come under fire for allegedly starting WACLE with funds they took from AFSCME. In a September 10, 2014 ruling, a state appellate court upheld a default judgment against former AFSCME Council 24 union officials who represented workers at Taycheedah, Dodge, Waupun and other state correctional facilities, because they had failed to meet a court-required filing deadline.

When they left AFSCME, the officials took with them “thousands of dollars” in dues collected from members to start WACLE, according to Peggy Lautenschlager, an attorney for Council 24, prompting AFSCME to sue to recover the funds.

In an eight-page opinion, the District III Court of Appeals concluded that the explanation offered by the new union’s leaders that they failed to respond to the suit by the deadline because they faced “just too many lawsuits against too many defendants” was insufficient.

“[A] reasonable, prudent person would not ignore a summons,” the appellate court wrote. See: Wis. State Prison Emples. Waupun Local 18 v. Meehan, 2014 WI App. 110, 2014 Wisc. App. LEXIS 729 (Wis.Ct.App. 2014).


Sources:,, Associated Press,


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Related legal case

Wis. State Prison Emples. Waupun Local 18 v. Meehan