Nebraska's labor unions pushed back Monday on plans by some state lawmakers to change or abolish the Commission of Industrial Relations -- including two measures that would ban the government from engaging in collective bargaining for wages and benefits.

Dozens of union members appeared at a news conference at the Nebraska State Education Association, the union for the state's 26,000 teachers, a few hours before the Legislature's Business and Labor Committee discussed nine proposals dealing with the CIR. 

Mark Salerno of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers said the measures were "radical proposals" that "infringe upon citizens' freedom of association (and) right to come together as individuals and collectively express, promote, pursue and defend common interests."

One of those measures (LB664), by Sen. John Nelson of Omaha, would abolish the CIR and prohibit the government from engaging in collective bargaining. A proposed constitutional amendment (LR29CA), also by Nelson, would ask voters to approve banning government from engaging in collective bargaining.

Current law prevents public unions from striking. In exchange, it requires government employers to bargain with unions and gives the CIR the power to make decisions in disputes.

Nelson said he wants to end collective bargaining for public employees because the CIR, when considering wage and benefit disputes, weighs what employees in similar jobs in other states are getting. That, he says, skews things.

"For some reason, those places always have higher standards of living, which requires higher salaries" to be set by the CIR, Nelson said. "I think we need ... reform of the CIR system. It's not working. The public unions consistently seem to have an advantage when they go before the CIR."

Jess Wolf of the NSEA disagreed with that logic.

"Collective bargaining is between employers and employees, and nothing ... gives an advantage either to one side or the other,'' Wolf said. "If it did give an advantage, I seriously doubt Nebraska would be 42nd in the country in average teacher salaries."

The genesis for much of the attention being paid to the CIR 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.

Some 43,500 Nebraskans are covered by collective bargaining.

More than 36 percent of Nebraska's public workers are covered by union contracts, compared to just 6 percent of workers in private companies, according to research by Barry Hirsch of Georgia State University and David Macpherson of Trinity University

Of the state's 18,650 employees, more than 11,000 are represented by labor unions.

Ken Mass of the Nebraska State AFL-CIO decried the CIR measures.

"Nebraska's public employees are being painted as the No. 1 enemy by politicians who want to balance the budget on their backs," he said. "The middle class is shrinking rapidly. Working Nebraskans and Americans need the power to be able to protect themselves" through unions.

Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop, chairman of the Business and Labor Committee, said he expects the CIR law to be tweaked. But he said there is little chance the measures aimed at ending collective bargaining for public employees will go anywhere.

Lathrop and Omaha Sen. Brad Ashford have put together a group representing labor and city administrators that is working to find a compromise on these issues.

Nelson said he will reserve judgment on that effort for now.

"If they bring a bill that is substantially more than a Band-Aid, then we will work with that," he said. "We'll have to see."

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

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