LINCOLN — The state's three largest business organizations released a proposal Tuesday that would remove most of the powers of a much-maligned state labor court.
The proposal from the Omaha, Lincoln and state chambers of commerce stands in stark contrast to a bill crafted by Nebraska municipalities and labor groups that would retain and reform the State Commission of Industrial Relations.
The business groups' plan was immediately condemned by the state largest teachers' union as unfair and unbalanced.
Expect a donnybrook when debate begins on the issue of collective bargaining rights and public employee unions this afternoon in the State Legislature.
“It isn't your traditional, run of the mill, philosophical difference,” said State Sen. Mike Flood of Norfolk, the Speaker of the Legislature. “It's going to take more time.”
The focus of the debate will be Legislative Bill 397, a compromise bill brokered by Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop.
Lathrop said the bill reflects changes sought by the League of Nebraska Municipalities, and concessions agreed to by lawyers representing state and local public employee unions.
The CIR, he said, has helped keep public employees “on the job,” and has been an effective way to find an “average wage” when labor disputes arise.
But representatives of the three chambers made it clear Tuesday that LB 397 doesn't go far enough.
Their proposal would do away with the CIR's powers to rule on wage disputes between unions and their public employers, and it would put that power into the hands of city councils, county boards, school boards and other elected officials.
Under the chambers' proposal, if collective bargaining didn't result in a deal on wages and benefits, then the elected body in charge would issue a final and best offer to the union, which would have to accept it.
The CIR would act only to resolve complaints that a party had not bargained in good faith. Its power to decide labor disputes would be removed.
Omaha attorney Scott S. Moore, who helped craft the chambers' proposal, said it would put elected officials back in control of their own labor costs.
“Today, there is no control over that number for the public entities,” he said.
The business groups' plan still would allow for comparisons with private-sector wages — a main feature of LB 397 — but it would allow the comparisons in a different way to avoid concerns that a private employer would be forced to reveal private wage and benefit information.
Employers and unions would both devise “prevailing wage” reports utilizing survey data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Those reports would be released to the public, creating greater transparency in the process, Moore said, and would become the basis for negotiations.
All public employee unions, from those representing firefighters, K-12 teachers to university professors, would be subject to the same negotiation procedures under the proposal.
Karen Kilgarin, a spokeswoman for the Nebraska State Education Association, said the chambers' plan turns the CIR into a “toothless tiger” and eliminates an impartial third party to decide labor disputes.
“To give superintendents and school boards carte blanche power just doesn't seem right or fair,” Kilgarin said. “It's like going to court and the person you're taking to court is the judge, the jury and the opposing counsel.
“It's not a balanced process.”
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