STILL SECOND CLASS CITIZENS: PUBLIC EMPLOYEES IN MISSOURI
Knowing the limits of your rights on the job is at least as important as knowing your specific rights. Thus, this piece will address a serious lack of employee rights. Despite Governor Holden's much-discussed Executive Order extending broader collective bargaining rights to approximately 30,000 employees of state agencies and departments under the direct control of the Governor, most public employees in Missouri still lack the fundamental collective bargaining rights enjoyed by private sector employees, federal employees, and public employees in many other states including Kansas. Governor Holden's Executive Order is the subject of a separate Know Your Rights piece. See Collective Bargaining for Some: Governor Holden's Executive Order.
Under the federal labor laws that apply to private sector employers, workers—through their unions—have the right to bargain collectively regarding wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment. In fact, federal labor law imposes a duty on private sector employers to bargain with unions in good faith and to put agreements reached into writing. Once an agreement is reached, furthermore, that agreement is binding on the parties for the length specified in the agreement, traditionally three years. During that time, neither the employer nor the union can change the agreement without the expressed consent of the other party. If an employer negotiates in bad faith or tries to change the terms of an existing agreement unilaterally, it is guilty of an unfair labor practice and can be sanctioned by the National Labor Relations Board. These are fundamental rights that all workers deserve. And collective bargaining is essentially a sham when the law fails to require good faith bargaining and when employers can unilaterally change agreements after they have been reached.
But, in Missouri, public employees lack these fundamental rights. The Missouri Meet and Confer Law is the weakest form of public employee labor law possible, requiring little more than sham bargaining and almost guaranteeing that public employees will remain powerless.
Although the Meet and Confer Law applies to most of Missouri's state, county, and municipal employees, it specifically exempts from its coverage police, deputy sheriffs, Missouri state highway patrol officers, Missouri National Guardsmen, and all teachers in Missouri schools, colleges and universities. Those employees have no bargaining rights at all. Although in practice some school districts do sit down and bargain with their teachers' unions in order to strive for fairness and labor peace, the important thing to remember is that school districts and law enforcement agencies are not legally required to bargain with their employees, thus making their employees third class citizens.
Although the United States Supreme Court has held that public employees have a First Amendment right of association which includes the right to belong to a union, the First Amendment does not require employers to sit down and bargain with a union. Thus, the Missouri law's exclusion of law enforcement officers and teachers is constitutional.
The public employees to whom the Missouri Meet and Confer Law applies are only marginally better off than law enforcement officers and teachers. Although not exempt from the public employee bargaining law, these other public employees have very modest rights under the law. For instance, they can "present proposals to any public body relative to salaries and other conditions of employment through representatives of their own choosing." But this right is only meaningful if the law also requires employers to listen to those proposals.
Unfortunately, the Meet and Confer Law imposes only minimal requirements on public employers. Specifically, the law merely requires public employers to "meet, confer and discuss such proposals," to reduce "the results" of such discussions to writing, and to present those results "to the appropriate administrative, legislative or other governing body in the form of an ordinance, resolution, bill or other form for adoption, modification or rejection."
Ominously, the law does not require public employers to bargain in good faith. Nor does the law require the public employers' negotiators sitting at the table with the union to have final authority to negotiate binding agreements. Worst of all, the law specifically permits the governing authority to reject agreements reached at the bargaining table. In the private sector, these facts would prove bad faith bargaining per se because an employer who sends impotent negotiators to the table, merely goes through the motions of bargaining, and rejects agreements after the fact is presumed to be bargaining in bad faith. But for public employers in Missouri these outrageous practices are perfectly legal. In fact, by omitting a good faith requirement and specifically sanctioning the rejection of agreements reached at the table, the Missouri Meet and Confer Law in effect encourages bad faith bargaining.
Although these provisions of the law are extremely weak, the worst part of the public employee bargaining law in Missouri is that the public employer can, at any time and without consulting the union first, unilaterally change any agreement it previously approved. That is what the Missouri Supreme Court decided in a 1982 case. In that case, the City of Moberly had entered into a memorandum of agreement with its fire fighters union in May 1980. Only a few months later, in January 1981, the city unilaterally changed part of that agreement. This is fundamentally unfair and violates the first rule of contract law: that contracts must be kept. In Missouri, however, public employers are not obliged to keep their promises, and their agreements are literally not worth the paper they are written on.
This must change. It is long past time for the Missouri Legislature to pass a real public employee bargaining law that requires good faith bargaining, gives employees the right to enter into meaningful contracts with their employers, and prohibits unilateral changes in agreements made with unions. These are not radical proposals. These are fundamental rights that every worker deserves and that public employees in many other states and in the federal sector already have. Call and write your legislator today and demand fairness for public servants in Missouri.
Given the fact that Missouri General Assembly has tried and failed to do the right thing, however, it is time for the People to take the bull by the horns and act to ensure fairness for our public servants. Support efforts to pass a real bargaining law through the Missouri referendum election procedures!
This is Doug Bonney helping you to Know our Rights!