LINCOLN — The state’s much-heralded labor agreement with state prison workers last week came with one unusual condition:
The union agreed to oppose any bill proposed in the Nebraska Legislature related to “classification and compensation” of the security workers who staff state prisons and other secure facilities, such as the Lincoln Regional Center and the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers.
If any such bills were passed by the Legislature, the labor agreement — which raised starting pay for prison corporals to $20 an hour — would be “null and void,” according to the clause, which was in the first paragraph of the “Letter of Agreement” between the state and the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 88.
An attorney for the union, Gary Young of Lincoln, said that while the clause was unusual, the union, as well as the state, were seeking to be “done” with a long-festering problem of poor compensation for corrections officers and other state security staff.
“It is an unusual clause, but it’s an unusual situation,” he said.
Over the past few years, corrections staff have been calling for increased pay and raises for longevity as turnover rose to over 30%, vacant posts required more and more overtime, and state workers left for better-paying jobs at county jails.
Some corrections officers were working multiple 16-hour shifts a week to fill mandated jobs. The state was forced to drive officers from Omaha to prisons in Tecumseh and Lincoln, and to declare “staffing emergencies” at those prisons so it could change from 8-hour shifts to 12-hour shifts, which require fewer workers.
The labor agreement announced Friday — which is currently undergoing a ratification vote by union members — was the culmination of months and months of requests, by prison workers as well as state legislators, to take action.
Sign up for World-Herald news alerts
Be the first to know when news happens. Get the latest breaking headlines sent straight to your inbox.
“We were trying to solve the problem by negotiating in good faith, and the Governor’s Office and his administration didn’t want to cut a deal with us and then have the Legislature come back and do something different,” Young said. “They wanted to know, understandably, that this was done.”
Jason Jackson, the chief negotiator for Gov. Pete Ricketts, said one of the bills pending in the Legislature, Legislative Bill 109, is “incompatible” with the wage increases negotiated.
The labor agreement, Jackson said, “is a better deal for corrections officers, but the uncertainty surrounding LB 109 had to be resolved before we could plan for the future.”
“We hope the Legislature will support this agreement by voting against LB 109,” he said.
State Sen. Kate Bolz of Lincoln, who had prioritized LB 109 this year as a way to achieve increased salaries by creating new classifications of corrections staff, said it seemed unusual that her proposal was specifically named in the agreement. But she said it’s been her priority all along to get better compensation for corrections staff, and if the union thinks the new labor agreement will do that, she will back off on her bill.
“If it helps them get fair pay, fair benefits, fair hours and stabilizes the workforce, that’s OK by me,” she said.
Another state lawmaker who has pushed hard for better pay, Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, said he’s not drafting any legislation on corrections salaries given the labor agreement.
“We need to give that an opportunity to be successful,” he said.
Young, the union lawyer, added that the pressure exerted by state lawmakers undoubtedly aided the union in its effort to improve compensation.
A lawyer who specializes in labor contracts, John Corrigan of Omaha, said the clause that requires the corrections officers union to oppose pending legislation isn’t completely novel.
Corrigan said that years ago, while he was negotiating a labor agreement for Omaha firefighters with the City of Omaha, the union agreed to not finance a lawsuit being pursued by a group of paramedics.
Gaining a broader labor agreement, he said, was more important to the union.
“We wanted to settle a contract,” he said.