Wage dispute reforms head to final clearance


May 20th, 2011

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Lincoln, NE – A measure that supporters predict will slow the increase in public sector wages is one vote away from passing.

Public employees’ pay has been one of the hottest issues around the country. Cash-strapped governments have tried to scale back bargaining rights, and unions have fought back. In Nebraska, the issue has been fought out over the Commission of Industrial Relations, the state’s unique labor court that has the power to resolve wage disputes between governments and public employees.

Speaker Mike Flood credited Nebraska's "intelligent" and "impassioned" citizens for the lack of protests surrounding proposed reforms to the state labor court. (Photo courtesy Nebraska Legislature)

Legislation was proposed spelling out how the CIR should make its decisions, to reduce uncertainty. But business groups said that didn’t go far enough. After negotiations, the latest proposal goes farther, and has been accepted by both business and labor leaders, who were faced with proposals to end collective bargaining. Senator Mike Flood, speaker of the Legislature, contrasted the process with what went on in other states like Wisconsin, where demonstrators occupied the Capitol.

“You know what makes Nebraska different?” he asked. “We didn’t have drums beating in the rotunda. We had intelligent citizens of this state. We sat across the table. We had heated discussions. We had differences of opinion. We had intelligent citizens of this state, whether from labor or management or the business community make impassioned speeches based in fact and good faith efforts to make the right policy happen in Nebraska.”

One of the biggest changes is that if wages are found to be below average, the CIR will order them up to 98 percent of average, instead of 100 percent. And if state revenues have declined for six months, they would only go up to 95 percent. Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop, who brokered the deal, said that would slow wage increases, but wouldn’t lead to a downward spiral. If wages are found to be above average, they could be reduced to 102 percent of average.

The amended version of the bill also drops comparisons between public employee and private sector pay, except for utility workers. And it forces governments and unions to vote on their negotiating partners’ last, best offers. Lathrop said that would end the current practice of city councils and others deferring decisions to the CIR in order to avoid difficult votes. The bill got second-round approval on a voice vote.

Governor Dave Heineman, calling it a victory for taxpayers, said he would sign it. And business and labor groups said they will not pursue initiative campaigns to abolish or uphold the CIR that they had talked about running next year.

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