Plan would overhaul collective bargaining for public employees

2011-03-29T23:50:00Z 2011-05-04T10:09:43Z Plan would overhaul collective bargaining for public employeesBy KEVIN O'HANLON / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com

A compromise plan to overhaul the state's collective bargaining system for public workers was unveiled Tuesday in hopes of avoiding the tumult that engulfed Wisconsin in recent weeks.

Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop, chairman of the Nebraska Legislature's Business and Labor Committee, offered the plan after several collective-bargaining measures were introduced earlier this session, including two that proposed to end collective bargaining for public employees.

"We explored virtually every aspect of the employee-employer relationship," Lathrop said. "It is a comprehensive and meaningful response to the call for change."

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 for wages and benefits. 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 Commission of Industrial Relations.

But Nebraska cities in particular have complained that the commission was inconsistent and unpredictable in its decisions.

Lathrop and Omaha Sen. Brad Ashford assembled a group that included the League of Municipalities, the state Chamber of Commerce and labor unions to draft the 67-page plan, which was amended into an existing bill (LB397) and sent to the full Legislature for debate.

It represents the first comprehensive overhaul to the state's collective bargaining law since 1969.

"There is no question that this is a significant rewrite," Ashford said.

The genesis for much 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.

Some 43,500 Nebraskans are covered by collective bargaining.

City officials complain that the current system -- which bases wage decisions on those paid for comparable jobs in other towns -- is inconsistent and unpredictable. They also say cities used for comparing wages are often 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 first-hand.

Lathrop said the compromise plan addresses those concerns; highlights of the plan include:

* Spells out criteria to be used by the CIR in deciding cases.

* Requires the CIR to consider workers' wages and pension and health care benefits when looking at compensation. Currently, the CIR uses only wages.

* If the total compensation being paid to workers is more than those being paid in a comparably-sized city, the compensation would be frozen until it equalizes in comparison to other similar cities.

* When compiling a group of other employers to use for comparing wages and benefits, preference will be given to those that are "geographically proximate" to Nebraska public and private employers.

* Tweaks the formula to include more private-sector employers when doing wage and benefits comparisons.

* Sets size criteria for using metropolitan areas to compare wages.

* School districts, educational service units and community colleges could request a hearing before the CIR if they feel they are unable to pay wages and benefits ordered by the CIR.

* School districts, educational service units and community colleges must begin wage negotiations by Nov. 1. If no agreement is reached by Feb. 8, the parties must submit to mediation unless both agree not to. If there is no agreement by March 25, either party can file a petition with the CIR, which must rule by Sept. 15.

* Requires smaller school districts in designated teacher shortage areas or those that have an academically underachieving school to negotiate financial incentives for retaining or recruiting teachers.

* Removes the option of using a special master to hear state union disputes before having a hearing before the CIR. All appeals of CIR rulings would go to the Nebraska Supreme Court instead of first going to the state Court of Appeals.

Of the 18,650 employees who work for the state, more than 11,000 are represented by labor unions.

In Lancaster County, more than 8,000 local government and public power workers, including about 3,100 Lincoln teachers, have jobs covered by public union contracts.

The Nebraska State Education Association is the union for the state's 26,000 teachers.

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

Copyright 2015 JournalStar.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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