Debate kicks off on workers’ wages

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May 4th, 2011

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Lincoln, NE – The Legislature has begun debate on the contentious issue of reforming the Commission of Industrial Relations.

Before this year, discussing the Commission of Industrial Relations, or CIR, hasn’t been considered very exciting. But with high-profile efforts to change public sector bargaining procedures in Wisconsin and elsewhere, the issue has skyrocketed in public attention.

Nebraska Senators are debating how much power to give the Commission on Industrial Relations to settle wage disputes for public workers (Photo courtesy Wikimedia)

Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop said he set out to respond to concerns by Nebraska cities about the unpredictability of wage settlements ordered by the CIR, which is called in when bargaining reaches an impasse.

Lathrop has introduced a bill to specify how the CIR should go about finding average wages. It includes making comparisons to the private sector, counting pensions and benefits, emphasizing comparisons within Nebraska, and freezing public sector wages if they’re above wages paid for comparable jobs elsewhere. Hastings Senator Dennis Utter, who worked with Lathrop on the legislation, outlined the goal.

“I believe that Nebraska public employees should not be the lowest paid in our state with inadequate benefits,” he said. “Nor should they be the highest paid with the best benefits. Wages and benefits combined to a total compensation package should be fair and reasonable.”

The League of Nebraska Municipalities endorsed the proposal, but Sen. Charlie Janssen of Fremont said the mayor of that city, along with those in Grand Island, North Platte, Hastings, Kearney, Holdrege and Lexington oppose it.

Some critics of the proposal said that while the goals sounded good, they were troubled by the details. For example, Lincoln Sen. Tony Fulton questioned the CIR’s ability to subpoena wage information from the private sector.

“As we’ve seen over and over and over, the best laid plans of mice and men so oft go awry,” he said. “Good intention does not make good policy. I hear the words Big Brother when I hear this. And we are going to have to sell this to the people. This is one of those issues I ask you to think about, to contemplate. There are more.”

Fulton has an amendment that would turn over many of the powers and requirements of the CIR to elected officials, while keeping it in place to ensure bargaining is conducted in good faith. And both business and labor groups have talked about going to the people with ballot initiatives on the issue next year.

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