By Brendan O'Brien
MADISON, Wis (Reuters) - The vast majority of local school unions have been recertified in Wisconsin despite statewide collective bargaining measures for public workers that have sharply limited their power.
Around 85 percent of local school unions were recertified by their members through a process mandated by the state's collective bargaining rules during the last three weeks, a preliminary report by the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission showed.
"The overwhelmingly positive results send a clear signal to Governor (Scott) Walker that his divisive approach to governing and his cuts of $1.6 billion to schools do not reflect Wisconsin values," said Mary Bell, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council in a statement posted to the organization's Web site on Friday.
Walker and the Republican-led legislature passed controversial collective bargaining legislation last year that greatly limited the power of organized labor in the public sector.
The fight over unions played out largely along party lines and led to recall efforts that unseated two Republican state senators last summer. Opponents have also launched efforts to try to remove the governor and conservative state lawmakers.
Wisconsin's collective bargaining rules require all local public unions to recertify each year. A union must receive yes votes from 51 percent of members to remain certified.
"I know a lot of teachers out there who wish they would not have to be part of the union, and there is tremendous pressure on them to be part of the union which is one of the reasons why we did what we did," Republican state Senator Glenn Grothman said.
"I believe that there is not a part of government that is going to improve more than our schools as we have taken control away from some of the most extreme teacher union elements," he added.
Public workers and teachers were among thousands of protesters who converged on Madison to voice disapproval over the legislation after it was introduced. Republican lawmakers defended the measure, saying it was necessary to get the state's financial house back in order.
Most public sector unions were stripped of their ability to negotiate wage, benefit and work condition provisions with school districts and municipalities, making recertification largely symbolic.
"As shown by this vote, our members stood together and supported each other," Doug Perry, president of the teacher's union in Greenfield, said in a statement after his unit was recertified by a vote of 154-1.
A total of 177 local bargaining units representing teachers, custodial workers and support staff participated in the first round of statewide recertifications.
According to WEAC officials, about two-thirds of all local unions were still under contract with their school districts, and were not required to take part in the recertification process until after their contracts expire.
Municipal bargaining units will take part in the same recertification process in May. Unions representing police and firefighters are exempt.
(Writing and reporting by Brendan O'Brien; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)