Compromise reached on collective bargaining plan

2011-05-18T23:00:00Z 2011-05-19T13:23:02Z Compromise reached on collective bargaining planBy KEVIN O'HANLON / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com

Just days after a plan to reform Nebraska's collective bargaining system for public employees seemed ready to crumble, a deal was reached late Wednesday that the key negotiator was confident would be embraced by all sides.

"The negotiations are complete," said Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop, who helped lead a nearly yearlong, tumultuous negotiation process to overhaul the system. "We ... have a bill that I have every expectation will enjoy a great deal of support of the floor" of the Legislature.

And what about Gov. Dave Heineman, who earlier this week threatened to veto the measure (LB397) to reform the Nebraska Commission of Industrial Relations, which hears labor disputes?

"I have every expectation he will sign it," Lathrop said.

The bill is scheduled for second-round debate Thursday.

The governor said Monday that LB397 didn't go far enough to make negotiations with public employees unions transparent, consistent and flexible for government officials.

Although exact language still was being worked on, Lathrop said the final version of the plan would address concerns about the negotiation process, transparency, how wages are compared, cost containment for government and how total compensation for workers is calculated.

The announcement ended a day of intense negotiations to hammer out a deal that a multitude of parties involved could live with. That included the Lincoln, Omaha and state chambers of commerce, who recently proposed their own plan that threatened to torpedo the compromise plan Lathrop and others had been working on.

While lawmakers earlier this session voted to advance Lathrop's compromise plan, some of the most intense negotiations took place in the past few weeks.

Wendy Boyer of the Omaha Chamber of Commerce said the business groups now support the reform plan.

"We've worked hard on a compromise ...," she said. "We feel it's a good opportunity to move this forward."

Earlier in the session, Lathrop had laid out the overhaul plan he helped broker after several collective bargaining measures were introduced, including two that proposed to end collective bargaining for public employees.

Collective bargaining has become a divisive issue across the country.

Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin made national headlines earlier this year when he proposed severely curtailing the right of public workers to collectively bargain. The effort resulted in mass protests in and around the Wisconsin Capitol before the measure was adopted.

Nebraska law prevents public unions from striking. In exchange, it requires government employers to bargain with unions and gives the power to solve labor disputes to the CIR.

City officials have complained that the current system -- which bases wage decisions on those paid for comparable jobs in other communities -- is inconsistent and unpredictable. They also said cities used for wage comparisons often are different from the Nebraska city with which they are being compared because of a higher cost of living.

Union representatives, on the other hand, would like a less expensive dispute system, one in which the experts don't have to travel across the country to visit other similar communities.

Lathrop, Omaha Sen. Brad Ashford and Sen. Dennis Utter of Hastings assembled a group that included the League of Municipalities, which first led the call for reform, the state chamber of commerce and labor unions to draft the 67-page plan.

The plan represents the first comprehensive overhaul of the state's collective bargaining law since 1969.

Under the plan hammered out late Wednesday, a public vote would be required on the final offer made to a union by a school district or government entity. The dispute would go to the CIR only if both sides turned down the other's final offer. The union's final offer would have to be included in the public record before the CIR.

The genesis for some of the dispute over collective bargaining can be found in the recession. While many employees of private companies have lost jobs or seen wages frozen, many public employees have continued to get raises through union contracts.

About 43,500 Nebraskans are covered by collective bargaining.

The current CIR system strives to identify an average wage for a class of employees. The chambers' proposal supported by Heineman eventually would result in public employees earning 85 percent of the average or below, opponents of the chambers' plan said.

The chambers of commerce proposed ending the CIR's power to set public employees' wages or benefits but would have allowed appeals to the commission, which then could have ordered renegotiations if it found bad-faith bargaining or other unfair labor practices by either a union or local government.

Reach Kevin O'Hanlon at 402-473-2682 or kohanlon@journalstar.com

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