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Latest News - April 2011

April 12, 2011
Collective bargaining reform plan to get public hearing
Source: Lincoln Journal Star
By: Kevin O’Hanlon

Vicky Sorensen (left) and Barb Jorgens join a rally at the Nebraska Capitol on Monday, April 4, 2011. "We Are One" rallies, like the one in Lincoln hosted by the AFL-CIO, were planned across the U.S. Monday, April 4, 2011 to support public sector employees' ability to form a union and collectively bargain. The date coincides with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who fought for collective bargaining. (LJS file)

A blueprint to overhaul the state's collective bargaining system for public workers will get a full public hearing Wednesday meant to further explain the complex legislation and thwart criticism of it.

"It will be an opportunity for me to explain what the bill does and doesn't do and take thoughtful input from people," said Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop, who led the effort to reach the 67-page compromise plan (LB397). "There is a lot of misinformation out there."

Some 43,500 Nebraskans are covered by collective bargaining.

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 and threatened to cause tumult similar to that which engulfed Wisconsin earlier this year.

Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin made national headlines this year when he proposed severely curtailing the right of public workers to collectively bargain. 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, or CIR.

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

"The League of Municipalities has been at the front of this issue for ... years," Lathrop said. "We've gone through and listened to the concerns of the political subdivisions and the state of Nebraska and the school districts -- and LB397 is responsive to that."

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 plan.

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

The genesis of the dispute over collective bargaining can be found partly 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.

City officials complain that the system -- which bases wage decisions on those paid for comparable jobs in other towns -- often uses out-of-state cities for comparing wages, which skews the results because of varying costs-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 similar communities first-hand.

Lathrop said the compromise plan addresses those concerns. Its highlights include these:

* 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. Now, 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 hearings before the CIR if they feel they are unable to pay wages and benefits ordered by it.

* 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.

Meanwhile, the conservative Platte Institute, which is bankrolled by Omaha millionaire Pete Ricketts, held a news conference Tuesday at the Capitol to criticize the plan.

"The legislation under consideration does not remedy an untenable situation but actually makes it worse," Platte Institute Executive Director John McCollister said. "The bill subjects private business to intrusive subpoenas, rewards failing teachers and doesn't help governments control and reduce employee costs.

"Unfortunately the call for significant and meaningful reform has gone unheeded, primarily because it further perpetuates a public policy that fails the taxpayer."

Lathrop said the measure has strong support among state lawmakers.

"I think my colleagues appreciate that it makes sense, that it's a fix and a response to the concerns of the people who use this (system) every day," he said. "Are there concerns? Yes. And as I've said, my door is open to people who have thoughtful criticism with proposed solutions.



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