LINCOLN — Round one of the great collective bargaining debate in the Nebraska Legislature ended Wednesday with a trio of business groups conceding a major issue: that a much-criticized state labor court should survive.
As the sun set on the Capitol after seven hours of debate, the lights went out on a proposal to gut most of the decision-making powers of the Commission of Industrial Relations.
The Omaha, Lincoln and state chambers of commerce had backed giving the final authority to decide labor disputes to city councils, school boards and other elected bodies, rather than the governor-appointed and independent CIR.
What’s left is a bill that would alter the CIR by forcing it to consider new factors in reaching its decisions on the “prevalent wage” that should be paid to public employees, such as pension and health care benefits and comparable private wages.
It appears certain that more compromises will be needed for the measure to pass the Legislature this year and win the signature of Gov. Dave Heineman.
“I think the Legislature came to terms tonight that absent both sides working together, there will be no CIR reform legislation this session,” said Norfolk Sen. Mike Flood, the speaker of the Legislature.
The five-member commission has come under fire from business and tea party groups that say the CIR’s rulings have hindered local officials efforts to rein in generous pensions and other compensation.
But defenders say that the CIR rulings simply find an “average wage” and that while the process might need clearer rules, it has been an effective way to resolve labor disputes while keeping essential public workers on the job. They say attacks on collective bargaining are unfair assaults on good middle-class jobs and unions.
The business groups’ plan, unveiled this week, was criticized as effectively killing collective bargaining by giving all power to elected officials and giving public employees little choice but to accept what is offered or quit. A city council could adopt its last, best offer if bargaining ended in an impasse.
“All the rules of the game are stacked on one side of the playing field,” said Omaha Sen. Brenda Council, an attorney who practices labor law.
She said the business plan was akin to what happens in the private sector, except that unionized private sector employees have the right to strike if they feel a final contract offer is unfair.
Public employees in Nebraska are prohibited from striking, a concession made years ago in exchange for collective bargaining rights.
Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop, the main architect of the CIR measure, Legislative Bill 397, said the practical effect of the chambers’ amendment would be below-average wages and benefits to public employees.
After it appeared that the business groups’ amendment lacked support to pass Wednesday night, a deal was brokered to allow LB 397 to advance but consider amendments proposed by the business groups to improve, but not replace, the labor court.
Ending the CIR’s role as the decider of labor disputes “is not something we are willing to negotiate,” said Lathrop, who crafted LB 397 with the help of the League of Nebraska Municipalities and lawyers who represent public employer unions.
Sen. Tony Fulton of Lincoln, who led the unsuccessful charge for the business groups’ plan, said his focus and that of the chambers of commerce will be on significant amendments.
“There will need to be a lot of changes before I’m willing to support it,” Fulton said.
Waiting in the wings is another possibility: that no matter what the Legislature does, some business or tea party-related group will seek to place a CIR elimination measure on the 2012 ballot.
Nationally, the debate over collective bargaining and public employee unions has been emotional, marked by massive labor protests in Wisconsin and Ohio.
In Nebraska, the prime mover has been police and firefighter contracts in Omaha, which some have viewed as too generous.
Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, a former CIR judge who helped craft LB 397, and Lathrop said the bill would result in significant cost savings for the city and provide a mechanism to force a renegotiation of pension benefits.
It would do that by forcing the CIR to consider not just wages, but also pensions and other benefits to arrive an “hourly rate value” that reflects total compensation.
Lathrop said the result will be CIR findings, or the promise of such findings, that public sector compensation has become too high. Eventually, that compensation will be forced downward to a fair and “average” wage.
Bellevue Sen. Abbie Cornett, a former police officer, warned that if collective bargaining rights were taken away and wages were cut too much, public workers would choose other professions, disrupting services. It costs $50,000 to upwards of $200,000 to train a cop, she said.
“Where’s the cost savings in losing those employees?” she asked. “Who in here wants to dial 911 and have no one come?”
Fulton and Sen. Beau McCoy of Omaha led the criticism of LB 397, saying it didn’t go far enough. Others, including a group of seven cities including Fremont and Grand Island, said LB 397 made the process more complicated and costly.
McCoy, who runs a roofing company, objected vehemently to the longtime power of the CIR to subpoena information from employers. LB 397 would expand that to private employers, which McCoy said would reveal proprietary wage and benefit information.
Bill opponents suggested an alternative, obtaining private wage information from federal labor statistics, which might become part of a future compromise.
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