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Collective bargaining bill fails in Missouri House

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by Karen E. Culp

SBJ Staff

Missouri legislators said no to collective bargaining this week, voting 88-73 to defeat a bill that would allow public employees to negotiate in good faith with public bodies to determine their salary and benefits.

An issue for more than 20 years, some say as many as 50, in the Missouri legislature, the collective bargaining bill had the support of both Gov. Mel Carnahan and House Speaker Steve Gaw this session, but despite that support, failed to gain the votes needed to move on to the Senate.

The bill defeated was House Bill 166; there is a companion bill in the Senate, but it is unlikely that the Senate will take that bill up following this vote, said Rep. Norma Champion.

"I doubt the Senate bill will move now, considering this defeat," Champion said.

Though the bill allowed for negotiations, and provided that public employees select an organization to represent them in those negotiations, the bill did contain a "no-strike" clause, said Rep. Mike Schilling.

Schilling, along with Rep. Craig Hosmer, voted for the bill; Champion, Roy Holand, Mark Wright and Matt Blunt voted no.

The city of Springfield, in establishing its legislative priorities, opposed the collective bargaining bills, and Mayor Lee Gannaway sent a letter Feb. 23 to the Springfield-area delegation stating the city's opposition to HB 166. Gannaway said that his primary concern was over increased expenses for the city, which could then lead to increased costs for its citizens.

"My No. 1 concern is the cost to taxpayers. It is estimated that in the first year alone, this will add $600,000 worth of expenses to the budget, and that is money that won't be available for repairing our streets and maintaining our city," Gannaway said.

Mike Peltz, president of the local firefighters union, said the estimates the city and others had made in terms of increased cost were all "worst case scenario."

"Those are the costs if every single case went to arbitration, which is not realistic," Peltz said.

He added that the collective bargaining bill would bring "things a giant step closer toward being an even playing field for labor."

Peltz's union, along with the Springfield police officers' union, protested several City Council meetings following passage of a bill that did not contain a provision for upgrading the police and firefighters' pension, but rather offered an increase in salary.

The groups had met with city officials several times asking for the pension increase, but in the end the council bill that passed contained only a provision for a salary increase.

As the law now stands in Missouri, unions or bargaining units that represent public employees are to "meet and confer" with public officials in order to arrive at agreements on workplace issues.

Peltz said he felt the meet-and-confer sessions were not effective.

"We spent a lot of time in meetings with the city last year and what did it get us? What they proposed contained nothing of what we suggested to them," Peltz said.

Other concerns about the failed House Bill were that it provided for a grievance resolution process that included arbitration.

Gannaway and others, including officials with the Missouri State Teachers Association, were concerned that this would make "decisions of local public officials involving daily administration of the workplace ... subject to second-guessing and reversal by a remote, unaccountable, state-mandated arbitrator," Gannaway said in his letter to legislators.

Champion agreed with that thinking, saying "why even have a council" when you are going to put the ultimate decisions in the hands of an arbitrator?

"The issue is whether we're going to allow this outside arbitrator to come in and make the decisions that should be in the hands of local elected officials," Champion said.

Peltz said that arbitration was empowering to both sides of the bargaining table.

"Arbitration is beneficial to both labor and management. It gives them an opportunity to have an outside perspective and allows management to get their side through, too," Peltz said.

Gannaway and teachers association officials were also concerned about the service fee portion of the bill, which provided that the employees either pay union dues or pay a fee to the bargaining agent representing them in negotiations.

From the teachers' perspective, that would force a lot of state teachers to participate in something they have otherwise shunned, and from Springfield's perspective, the provision would mandate employees to support something they otherwise support voluntarily.

"This would have eliminated choice for people who did may not wish to join anything," said Bruce Moe, director of communication for the teachers association.

Schilling, who said he did not think the vote would fall as short of passing as it did, said there was "nothing in this bill that makes you do this." Schilling had proposed an amendment that raised the minimum starting teacher salaries in areas where there would be no bargaining unit to represent them from $18,000 to $22,000.

That, Schilling said, would have protected teachers in districts that chose not to affiliate with a bargaining unit from losing money in salaries while other districts negotiated for increases.

Though Schilling said he recognized that there are limits in public funding, he said he favored the bill because it gave more clout to the worker.

Wright, who voted against the proposal, said he could not have supported the bill because of the increased costs to public bodies.

"I never could get firm numbers from either side on what this was going to cost. I had a great concern that if this bill did pass, city governments would have to use taxpayer money to pay for these processes, and they would then face a situation of having to raise taxes or cut services to cover those costs," Wright said.

Though Wright said he supported collective bargaining during his campaign, he never supported it for public employees.

"I was a union man myself, and I saw a lot of good things happen in the private sector as a result of union negotiations, but the public sector, where you're dealing with taxpayer dollars, is something else," Wright said.

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