The writer is a labor educator with the William Brennan Institute for Labor Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Nebraska's Commission of Industrial Relations (CIR) has recently come under criticism from both the Platte Foundation and the Plains States Legal Foundation. They object to the decisions it has rendered.
The CIR is comprised of a five-member board, which is appointed by the governor to six-year terms, with the consent of the unicameral Legislature. The law says that members must be "representatives of the public" who are appointed "because of their experience and knowledge of legal, financial, labor and industrial matters."
This process of selection refutes the idea that the CIR is "union-friendly," as Heyword Smith of the Plains States Legal Foundation alleges (Oct. 8 More Commentary). Every member of the current CIR was appointed and/or reappointed by a Republican governor.
The right to bargain collectively without the right to strike has been described as collective begging because the employer has the power to just say no to proposals from the union. The International Labor Organization (ILO) has long recognized that the right to strike is an essential element of the right to freedom of association. Yet the ILO also acknowledges that strikes may be restricted by law where public safety is concerned as long as adequate alternatives such as mediation, conciliation and arbitration provide a solution for workers who are affected.
Public sector unions and collective bargaining exist because our unicameral Legislature decided that it is in the public interest to "promote harmonious, peaceful and cooperative relationships between state government and its employees and to protect the public by assuring effective and orderly operations of government."
Since the 1940s, Nebraska law has declared that "labor unions promote the public general welfare of the state because "the continuous, uninterrupted and proper functioning of government service to the people of Nebraska is declared to be essential to their welfare, health and safety. It is contrary to the public policy of the state to permit any substantial impairment or suspension of the operation of government services.
"It is therefore declared that governmental services are clothed with a vital public interest and to protect same it is necessary that relations between the employers and employees be regulated by the State."
Nebraska labor law makes it public policy for employees to "(1) form, join and participate in, or refrain from forming, joining or participating in an employee organization, (2) recognize the right of state employees to organize for the purpose of collective bargaining and (3) require them to negotiate in good faith and enter into written agreements with employer representatives."
The CIR became the mechanism that the unicameral Legislature established to provide a level of fairness in the labor relations process. The law gives the CIR power to settle "industrial disputes" between government employers and their employee unions over issues that the law terms "mandatory items of bargaining."
In fact, the CIR's recent decisions are consistent with decisions rendered by similar public sector industrial relations boards in other states that allow public sector collective bargaining.
Most Nebraskans sell their intelligence, experience and strength to an employer in order to earn a living Nebraska has a work force that is not afraid of a hard day's work. If the people at the Platte Institute and the Plains States Legal Foundation are concerned about the welfare of Nebraska citizens, I suggest they put some efforts into finding and maintaining employers who create jobs which pay wages that can comfortably support a Nebraska family.
The bottom line is that Nebraska's public employee work force deserves to be treated fairly and compensated equitably. In my opinion, the recent decisions of the CIR have attempted to do that and are consistent with the promotion of the general welfare of our great state.
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