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On Saturday, the head of the Nebraska State Education Association vowed to fight efforts to eliminate collective bargaining rights of Nebraska teachers. (Courtesy photo)

LA VISTA -- The head of the Nebraska State Education Association took aim Saturday at efforts to eliminate collective bargaining or the Commission of Industrial Relations, vowing to fight with "every resource we have."

"The deeper meaning of what is going on across the nation with public sector unions is that we are not really in the Great Recession, we are in the Great Fire Sale, in which every public institution is in danger if it stands in the way of the economic interests of the very wealthy," NSEA Executive Director Craig Christiansen told teachers attending the group's delegate assembly.

About 43,500 Nebraska workers are covered by collective bargaining.

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

The Legislature is considering LB397, a compromise bill that overhauls the system for the first time since 1969. The NSEA "reluctantly" supports the compromise and was among the groups who worked it out.

But there are rumors of a petition drive this summer if "the CIR is not effectively neutralized," Christiansen said.

"Whether that initiative will seek to eliminate the CIR or whether it goes after collective bargaining itself, we will not go down easily," he said.

To that end, the delegation Saturday approved a resolution authorizing NSEA to investigate the option of initiating five ballot issues, including:

· Protecting the role of the CIR and the right of public employees to collectively bargain.

· Repealing corporate tax breaks.

· Establishing a "millionaire's tax" on the wealthiest Nebraskans.

· A referendum to repeal any law that diverts money from the general fund to roads funds.

· Constitutionally dedicating a set percentage of sales tax revenue to education.

The delegates also approved a measure allowing a one-time special assessment of as much as $10 a member to be used toward a ballot fund.

Jenni Absalon, president of the Lincoln Education Association, said the resolution is a way for the organization to be prepared if opponents of collective bargaining launch their own petition.

"So really this is pre-emptive," she said.

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Christiansen, whose speech was interrupted by applause several times and who got a standing ovation, defended education, the CIR and the proposed changes in LB397 against critics.

Opponents to LB397 include Gov. Dave Heineman, who says it doesn't go far enough and specifically criticized the education establishment for "punting" during compromise negotiations.

Among the numerous proposed changes: requiring the CIR to consider workers' benefits and pensions in addition to wages (which education leaders say has always happened in teacher negotiations); allowing school districts to request a hearing if they feel they are unable to pay wages and benefits ordered by the CIR; setting a deadline for school districts to reach contract agreements; allowing school districts to negotiate financial incentives to retain or recruit teachers in districts with teacher shortages or in academically under-achieving schools.

Christiansen said the notion that the CIR has driven up teacher salaries is "nonsense," and he said teachers should never have been involved in the legislation. The bill is a result of cities, primarily Omaha, upset about police and firefighter wages, he said.

Teacher pay in Nebraska ranks 43rd in the nation, compared with the state's firefighters, who rank 20th, and police, who rank 31st, Christiansen said.

On the surface, the poor economy jump-started opposition across the nation to public sector unions, he said. But the at root of the issue are efforts to reduce labor costs and taxes on the wealthy and to capture profits by privatizing government services.

"The target isn't public salaries and benefits," he said. "The real target is the collective power of common people working together."

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Reach Margaret Reist at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com

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