Relief in Nebraska

After months of negotiations and looming threats, state lawmakers chart a more moderate course for collective bargaining for public employees.
May 20, 2011

When it comes to collective bargaining for public employees, Nebraska is choosing not to follow the path laid out by other states in the Midwest.

A compromise brokered late Wednesday on a bill that would reform Nebraska's labor laws appeared to stave off many of the more extensive changes that had been proposed by business groups, though it preserved at least one measure that was important to higher education administrators. A representative of the chief faculty union in that state expressed relief.

“Honestly, compared to Ohio or Wisconsin, this is a very reasonable, Nebraska-like solution, and we’re a lot more comfortable than we were yesterday,” said Larry Scherer, director of bargaining and research for the Nebraska State Education Association, which is affiliated with the National Education Association (the NSEA represents faculty at the University of Nebraska at Kearney and at three state colleges: Chadron State, Wayne State and Peru State).

“There will be big changes and we’ll have to adapt to them, but it seems like they’ll be reasonably fair changes,” he continued Thursday, before the legislature was poised to vote on the measure (Nebraska's legislature is unicameral, which means the next stop for the bill will be the Governor's desk; it is not yet clear what he will do). “It feels like we dodged a bullet. But we’re not out of the woods yet because it has to be voted on.”

For several months, private negotiations and public hearings have been been taking place about collective bargaining and how both sides in a labor dispute involving public workers can resolve an impasse. Many of the proposed amendments have rankled faculty members, who worried that the changes would restrict the scope of collective bargaining, limit wages and eliminate their ability to seek low-cost arbitration.

Late Wednesday night, a compromise was reached after extensive negotiations between lawmakers, labor groups and business leaders. The Chambers of Commerce in Omaha and Lincoln have been aligned with Gov. Dave Heineman in pushing to keep taxes low and contain public spending. Heineman recently vowed to veto a prior version of the bill that he said did not include enough amendments suggested by the chambers (his office declined to comment on whether the compromise had won his approval). Meanwhile, labor groups sought to retain the right of their members to collectively bargain and preserve as much of the existing structure as they could.

Much of the debate focused on curbing the power of the Commission of Industrial Relations (CIR), a state agency that rules on labor disagreements for public sector workers. Bill Pratt, a history professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and chief negotiator for the campus chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said the commission had come to be blamed unfairly in the popular imagination for everything from pension problems to contracts that some in the private sector saw as too generous. "The CIR has assumed mythical proportions in this discussion," he said.

Those on the management side of higher education said they saw the wider reopening of the discussion on the state’s labor laws and on the CIR as an opportunity to address specific aspects of the CIR that didn’t work for them. They wanted the CIR's process to be more streamlined, for decisions from the commission to be more predictable and consistent, and for the CIR to take into greater account how much agencies could afford to pay as a result of the commission's decisions. Stan Carpenter, chancellor of the Nebraska State College System, said these flaws in the system had become especially apparent during a recent negotiation in which the commission awarded faculty an 11 percent salary increase over two years.

Carpenter said that he and his colleagues also favored provisions in the original bill that would factor salary, benefits and pensions to calculate a single number that both sides could use to compare total compensation with other workers in higher education. But he also affirmed his support for the larger structure of negotiation already in place. “We have never taken the position, nor would we, that the Council of Industrial Relations should be abolished or that collective bargaining was a bad thing,” he said.

But one aspect of the streamlining process favored by management -- the elimination of an arbiter called the Special Master -- was upheld in the compromise bill, and dismayed many in the faculty ranks. In the past, the Special Master has been called in once the sides have reached an impasse. Pratt said his bargaining unit had gone to the Special Master stage seven times, and he praised this part of the process because it was informal and relatively inexpensive (both sides could represent themselves rather than hire a lawyer). And because the Special Master is charged with picking one side’s final offer on the matters that remained outstanding, this person often helped, said Pratt, to resolve and focus the discussion. “You can’t split the baby, and that requires a certain prudence,” he said. “In most situations, I think it encourages realism.”

The compromise version appeared to eliminate the Special Master. Pratt said in an e-mail after the deal was reached that his initial response to the new terms was not terribly positive. “We weren't unhappy with the existing arrangement, and now we lost some of what we had,” he said.

But other measures that were in previous versions of the bill and that faculty found objectionable seemed to have been removed or significantly altered at the 11th hour. These included confining salaries and benefits for state employees to a percentage range similar to that earned by comparable workers, and limiting the subjects about which the sides could collectively bargain.

The fate of other changes remains unclear. Under existing legislation, the CIR resolves disputes over wages based on the average pay for public employees who are working in similar positions under similar conditions. For colleges, both sides must agree on a range of comparable institutions, within which specific ranks and departments are measured against each other. About 15 years ago, consultants devised a list of comparable institutions for UN-Omaha, to which both faculty and management agreed. The institutions are far-flung, ranging from Oregon to North Carolina. It is uncertain whether the new bill will restrict the comparable institutions to those within close geographic proximity -- or whether such closeness would simply be preferred under the law.

An earlier version of the bill also troubled many faculty members because they worried it would make it easier for management to hold down wages. Instead of relying solely on the average of comparable institutions, as it does now, the CIR could have -- under the previous revision -- ordered that public employees in disputed negotiations be paid between 85 percent and 115 percent of that average.

The low end of that range was particularly troubling, said Scherer. “If you’re in hardball negotiations the state can say, ‘We never have to pay more than 85 percent because that’s as high as the Council of Industrial Relations can take it,’ ” he said. “[It] changes the dynamics of bargaining when you have that huge range there.”

Some on the side of management thought the percentage seemed low, too. “On a personal level, just looking at it, I think this 85 percent doesn’t prohibit paying higher, but it would have a tendency in those areas where it was utilized to tend to drive salaries downward and to keep them from expanding,” said Ron Withem, director of governmental relations for the University of Nebraska System.

The deal struck Wednesday night narrowed that range to 98 percent to 102 percent, or from 95 percent to 100 percent during a recession.


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