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Government, Politics & Issues

Missouri Supreme Court strengthens collective bargaining rights for public employees

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 20, 2012 - The Missouri Supreme Court has issued rulings that appear to bolster the bargaining rights of public employees unions by stipulating that local governments and school districts cannot refuse to negotiate with such entities, and must do so in "good faith."

However, the high court also determined that a lower court recently had gone too far when it set down procedures for such talks.

In separate 5-1 decisions issued Tuesday, the high court weighed in cases involving police officers and sergeants in University City and Chesterfield and teachers at the Construction Career Center charter school in St. Louis.

In the case involving the teachers, the Supreme Court tossed out a lower-court ruling that had stated the charter school’s board didn’t have to negotiate with the teachers, a majority of whom had agreed to organize with the American Federation of Teachers.

The Supreme Court said the board did have to engage in such talks.

However, the Supreme Court stopped short of stipulating the details of how such negotiations should proceed. That view is reflected in a separate opinion,  in the police cases, in which the high court also ruled in favor of public-employee collective bargaining -- but also rejected a lower-court judge’s requirements for such proceedings.

In its ruling, the high court said, “The circuit court erred in ordering the cities to establish a specific procedure for meeting and conferring with the union and in ordering the cities to organize an election to designate the union as the exclusive bargaining representative.”

However, the Supreme Court then made clear that it supported the police and sergeants' bargaining rights. The court said it “orders the cities to recognize the (Fraternal Order of Police) as the exclusive bargaining representatives for the cities’ police officers and sergeants and to meet and confer with the union for collective bargaining.”

In all the cases, the sole dissenter was Judge Zel Fischer, who contended that the majority on the state Supreme Court had gone too far in its interpretation of the state constitution’s language regarding collective-bargaining rights.

Fischer agreed that the constitution did protect collective bargaining, but he contended that it also did not require employers to “negotiate in good faith” with unions or other groups representing employees for the purpose of contract negotiations.

The Supreme Court’s decision appears to strengthen the powers of unions representing public employees, which until a few years ago were generally  deemed to have limited rights to collective bargaining. And some public employers, such as a school districts, had refused to negotiate labor agreements.   Public employees in Missouri are barred from striking.

Missouri state government has had complicated view of public employee bargaining rights. In 2001, Gov. Bob Holden, a Democrat, had issued an executive order granting collective bargaining for about 50,000 state workers.

But in 2005, his Republican successor, Gov. Matt Blunt, rescinded Holden's order, saying it was unfair to Missouri taxpayers.

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