Four decades ago, a battle to extend collective bargaining rights to public employees raged through the Legislature. That same war is being fought today, although the divisions are markedly different and much of the rhetoric has changed.

The Legislature approved a bill granting collective bargaining rights to public employees 42 years ago last week.

The legislation, which expanded the authority and reach of what was then called the Court of Industrial Relations, was approved on a 27-19 vote.

Seventeen of 18 Douglas and Lancaster county senators united in support of the bill. The sole exception was iconic Omaha conservative Clifton Batchelder, who attempted to kill the proposal.

All six Lincoln/Lancaster County senators voted yes. All were Republicans.

The bill, LB15, was signed into law the next day by Gov. Norbert Tiemann. A Republican.

Times have changed.

What now is called the Commission of Industrial Relations is under assault in the Legislature and outside the Capitol's walls, with a Republican governor and business interest groups on the attack. 

Omaha and Lincoln senators are divided.

A bill to disempower the commission was proposed by a Lincoln Republican senator. A bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for public employees and a separate proposal to enshrine that ban in the state Constitution were introduced by an Omaha Republican.

An Omaha Democrat is leading the way in an effort to forge compromise legislation redefining -- and in some cases limiting or restricting -- the authority of the commission.

What had been a largely urban vs. rural battle four decades ago has turned more partisan. But it's also a budget skirmish and an ideological struggle. 

And, at bottom, it's a war over the power of unions, whose strength is increasingly concentrated in the public sector.

This epilogue still is being written on the floor of the Legislature, where senators are locked in combat over the negotiated provisions of LB397, with Sen. Steve Lathrop shepherding the bill through a minefield.

And there is even more history to be written. 

A disputed bill eventually may plop onto the desk of Gov. Dave Heineman, who appears to be waiting with a veto pen in hand.

And well-financed interests on both sides of the issue may be ready to take it from there. The prospect of a 2012 election shootout looms, with voters confronted by competing ballot initiatives and the state flooded with special interest money, much of it phantom in nature, anonymous and unidentified. 

Tracking that money will be like dusting for prints.  

Let's look back at the beginning to see how we got here and how the debate has changed.

"Why don't you just leave us alone out in our area and confine it to Omaha?" Sen. Herb Nore of Genoa implored during the 1969 floor debate. "They have problems there. We don't have too many problems outstate."

That was the dividing line.

Sen. Terry Carpenter of Scottsbluff, sponsor of the bill extending collective bargaining rights to public employees in Nebraska for the first time, repeatedly raised the fear of strikes, slowdowns or sick-ins while arguing for equity and justice in the workplace.

It was a time when police and sanitation workers and teachers in some cities, largely in the East, were threatening to walk off the job or engage in sick-ins. Some schools in New York already had been closed down temporarily.

Carpenter, who mastered and sometimes bullied the Legislature, mixing hard work and knowledge of the rules with canny maneuvering, a daily working relationship with lobbyists and the power of personal intimidation, raised the fear of a walkout in Omaha.

"In the city of Omaha, if it were not for the consideration of this bill, there might have been at this time a strike of those people engaged in the protection of the people and the police force," he said.

"I have been told that by responsible people in this area."

Other senators would dispute that contention, but it was left to hang in the air throughout the debate.

Carpenter balanced the threat of a walkout with an argument for social harmony and economic justice.

"The purpose of this act (is) to promote harmonious and cooperative relationships between government and employees and to protect the public by assuring at all times the orderly and uninterrupted operations and functions of the government," Carpenter said.

As for extending the right to collective bargaining, he argued: "Who can say they don't have that right? You don't take it away from the man who is working in the private sector. How can you make a distinction between those who work in the public?"

Batchelder, who would challenge and wound Tiemann in the GOP primary a year later when the moderate Republican governor unsuccessfully sought re-election with a politically toxic new state sales-income tax package weighting him down, tried to kill the bill on the second day of floor debate.

His argument against granting power to the industrial relations court to resolve public employee contract disputes echoes through the debate four decades later.

Batchelder: "I feel this bill undermines the authority of such bodies as city council.

"What this bill means is an organization under the command of the city council can go to the council, ask for a raise and the city council can tell them in all fairness and accuracy that they just don't have the funds. By this bill they can bypass them and go to a duly-appointed body.

"What we are actually getting into is a situation where nobody can say 'no' to any organization asking for more money than is available.

"Now, I think this is a wonderful bill in that it stops strikes among public employees, but I think, I am afraid, we are paying a terrible price for it."

Batchelder's motion to kill the bill failed on a 12-28 count.

But it triggered some blunt language about the kind of class warfare some critics suggest may be lurking in the shadows today.

Batchelder: "Senator Carpenter said that he is anticipating union organization and strikes. I say that he is not only anticipating it, but he is encouraging it."

Carpenter: "I think Senator Batchelder is the ideal man to make such a motion. ... He thinks that the dollar has taken the place of everything. That's his God, the dollar. Thank God, it's not mine."

On the first day of debate, Sen. William Skarda, a rough-hewn product of the blue-collar precincts of South Omaha, responded to Batchelder's criticism of the bill with a blunt assessment of class differences.

"I don't have a personal ax to grind with Senator Batchelder. I don't live in his area. I come from a poor area. That's the way I was raised and born. I am a kid from across the tracks and I have struggled every inch to get where I'm at, and I am going to keep fighting for the principles that I believe in."

Batchelder, who was a tank commander in Gen. George S. Patton's army during World War II, was a successful businessman with deep philosophical beliefs and a patrician manner that included an obvious detachment from his colleagues.  

Skarda had a high school education and lived in a world where many of his neighbors were ethnic Eastern Europeans, laborers and packinghouse workers.

During the debate, Sen. Fred Carstens of Beatrice expressed his concern to Carpenter about the low wages paid to employees at what was then known as the Beatrice State Home, where mentally and physically challenged people were essentially warehoused. 

"These people in Beatrice, and people in a like position throughout the state, in either state or local employment, are unable at this time and in the past to do anything to negotiate for themselves," Carpenter responded.

"Working for less than $200 a month as they did for years ... that is almost human slavery.

"Let's take, for example, the people in the local level who drive the buses for the schools. How are they going to negotiate for themselves?

"They are not in a position to go to the school board and say: 'Well, now, I want to negotiate.' They (the school board) would say: 'Negotiate about what?' They don't last very long."

Later, Nore, a farmer and stockman, weighed in: "One of the things that sort of worries me out in our rural area is that often we do employ unemployables. That is, the unemployed who have a difficult time getting a job. They really aren't worth the full wage."

Added Sen. Claire Holmquist of Oakland: "I can't see that the people in the small towns will try for higher wages, but the opportunity will be there."

Unions were part of the debate, but Carpenter was careful to disconnect his bill from them or their influence.

"No labor union in this state or outside of this state had anything to do with the introduction of this bill or its content," he declared.

Later, he stated: "Ninety percent of the purpose of the bill (is) to prevent strikes."

Nore remained alarmed and suspicious to the end.

"It's a little bit like socialism and communism," he said.

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Reach Don Walton at 402-473-7248 or at dwalton@journalstar.com.

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