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St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell

St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell speaks to the Editorial Board of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, on Monday, Jan. 21, 2019. Photo by Hillary Levin, hlevin@post-dispatch.com

Wesley Bell is rooting for Sally Barker to win.

Barker is a lawyer who represents many of the public-sector unions in the St. Louis area, including the National Education Association, to which Bell, the newly elected St. Louis County prosecuting attorney, used to belong.

Last August, Barker and her union clients filed a lawsuit seeking to stop House Bill 1413 — an anti-union law passed by the Republican-controlled Missouri Legislature — from taking effect. The bill, presented disingenuously by its backers as a way to protect workers’ paychecks, limits the power of public-sector unions by making them jump through costly and inefficient hoops in order to exist. For instance, the law allows workers to decline to allow the union to spend part of its dues for political purposes, requires regular recertification elections and raises the bar on what is necessary for those elections to succeed. The political party that makes its living on opposing government regulations also added new, burdensome regulations to public-sector unions to make it more expensive for them.

The bill, which became law Aug. 28, also does one other thing that was absolutely necessary for it to pass:

It exempts cops and firefighters.

This is a sneaky little trick Missouri Republicans learned from their friends in Wisconsin. If you want to pretend to be pro-worker, exempt the unions that tend to vote for the GOP when you’re passing anti-worker legislation. In effect, it proves the lie. If the bill Republicans passed was so necessary to protect worker rights, why didn’t they extend those protections to the very workers they love the most?

Here’s how Barker puts it in the pending lawsuit that seeks to invalidate the bill:

“HB 1413 creates a new public-sector collective-bargaining regime that imposes a raft of harsh restrictions on a disfavored set of public-employee labor organizations and their members, while completely exempting a more favored set of public-employee labor organizations and their members from the same. As a result, HB 1413 strips many — but not all — public-sector employees of collective bargaining rights and contractual protections, infringes on their rights to attain and retain union representation, and denies them vital free speech, association, and petition rights.”

Barker, it turns out, also represents one of the “favored” unions, the St. Louis Police Officers Association. This is where Bell comes in.

In a rushed election before he took office, the attorneys and investigators in the county prosecutor’s office voted 33-11 to join the city police union. Separate from the issues of Missouri law, the election raises a serious question of conflict of interest, particularly in police shooting cases.

“I was both disappointed and deeply troubled that it happened,” says Miriam Krinsky. She’s founder and executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution, a national nonprofit that advises prosecutors on best practices and advocates for criminal justice reform.

Krinsky used to work in the Los Angeles federal prosecutor’s office, and is aware that a few local prosecutor’s offices are  unionized, but not connected to a police union — a phenomenon that she believes is unique to St. Louis. “There are some inherent conflicts that inevitably arise between prosecutors and law enforcement officers,” she says.

Conflict aside, the prosecutors union election wasn’t overseen by the Missouri State Board of Mediation, as other public-sector union elections are, because lawmakers exempted public safety labor organizations from that requirement in the new law that took effect last August.

This, Bell poses in a letter to Barker, creates a dilemma.

“I have some concerns and legal issues that must be addressed and resolved before we are able to move forward with any discussion or negotiation,” Bell wrote Barker on Jan. 2, in a letter obtained by the Post-Dispatch. The letter was copied to multiple county officials.

The problem, Bell writes, is that the new law defines public safety labor organizations as “wholly or primarily representing persons … who are vested with the power of arrest for criminal code violations.”

The prosecuting attorneys and investigators who voted to join the POA don’t have the power of arrest.

That could mean that under the auspices of the new law, the union election was invalid, Bell writes. But more to the point, he hopes Barker wins her lawsuit. That would be a win for unions statewide, but it, too, would invalidate the prosecutor’s election because the POA would no longer have its favored exemption.

“As a lifelong supporter of unions, I agree with your union clients’ position in the MO NEA case,” Bell writes Barker, “especially as it prevents unions other than ‘favored public safety labor organizations’ from effective representation of public sector employees. … If you obtain the relief you seek on behalf of your MO NEA clients, the likely effect would be to invalidate the purported election that took place in the Office of Prosecuting Attorney on December 17, 2018, which was not conducted in accordance with the public sector label statute.”

Barker, whose response to Bell’s letter was sent to the county counselor’s office, but not the prosecutor, at the request of the county attorneys, says Bell is “attempting to connect two very separate and independent legal issues. … Unfortunately, as it stands now HB 1413 is the law of the land across Missouri. Any hypothetical questions about what happens if and when that changes are premature and will be addressed then.”

In her letter, she urges the county to begin negotiations with the police union.

Bell, on the other hand, suggests that the courts may have to intervene.

If that happens, Barker could end up in quite the pickle. Winning her lawsuit to benefit nearly every public sector union in Missouri, and tens of thousands of workers, could invalidate the one union election that probably shouldn’t have happened in the first place.

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