By Brendan O'Brien
MILWAUKEE (Reuters) - Wisconsin's collective bargaining reforms, which prompted protests from organized labor, do not violate the free speech and equal protection rights of public sector union workers, the state's supreme court ruled on Thursday.
The reforms, passed in 2011 by Republican lawmakers, severely limit the bargaining power of public sector unions while forcing most state workers to pay more for benefits such as health insurance and pensions.
The court ruled the public sector union members do not have a constitutional right to negotiate with their employer for wages and on other matters and that the law does not restrict their free speech and association rights.
"The plaintiffs remain free to advance any position, on any topic, either individually or in concert, through any channels that are open to the public," the court wrote in its opinion.
Federal courts have upheld the law in two cases including a ruling by Federal Judge William Conley last September. Conley also ruled the First Amendment grants public employees the right to free speech and association, but does not grant them collective bargaining rights.
The reforms, which do not apply to public safety workers, also made payment of union dues voluntary and forced unions to be recertified every year.
The law sparked massive protests in Madison and efforts to recall Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and some Republican lawmakers who voted for them. Walker survived a recall election in 2012.
"Today’s ruling is a victory for those hard-working taxpayers," Walker said in a statement, adding that the law has saved taxpayers more than $3 billion.
(Reporting by Brendan O'Brien; Editing by Bill Trott)