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Missouri’s high court to hear Greitens-era labor union dispute

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The Supreme Court Building in Jefferson City pictured on Wednesday, June 30, 2021. Photo by Colter Peterson, cpeterson@post-dispatch.com

JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments Tuesday in a case that could determine the fate of the state’s unionized workforce.

At issue is a 2018 law backed by former Republican Gov. Eric Greitens that the labor unions say has “eviscerated” the collective bargaining process between the state and the unions representing workers at state-run facilities and offices, ranging from juvenile detention aides to mental health technicians.

In 2019, Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem put on hold the sweeping rewrite, saying the new law impairs the bargaining rights of state workers, which are guaranteed in the state constitution.

Specifically, the law altered the state’s merit system by making it easier to hire, fire and reward workers.

The state removed testing requirements to qualify for jobs and terminated the appeals process for a merit system employee who was disciplined or fired.

Although Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican, has worked to boost the pay for state workers, his administration has not negotiated new contracts with the unions since he took over for the scandal-plagued Greitens.

The low pay and resulting turnover of employees has forced some agencies to shut down facilities or services.

In briefs before the court, attorneys for the unions said Parson’s administration is refusing to bargain over core issues and weakening the rights of the workers.

“They have rendered the unions impotent to enforce existing contracts or bargain any meaningful protections going forward,” the attorneys said.

In defending the law, Republican Attorney General Eric Schmitt said the state shouldn’t be bound to terms of labor contracts that are expired.

He said one contract, for example, has “no evergreen clauses, meaning that their terms expired as of their expiration dates.”

After the collective bargaining agreements expired, “the state was no longer contractually bound by the terms of those agreements,” Schmitt wrote.

The case affects an estimated 13,465 state employees covered by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; Local 6355 of the Communications Workers of America; and Local 1 of the Service Employees International Union.

It also could affect labor organizations that didn’t directly participate in the case, including one representing prison workers.

While the legal fight has been brewing, lawmakers this year approved raises worth a total of 7% for state employees in an attempt to address an exodus of workers to higher paying private sector jobs.

The law isn’t the latest attempt by the GOP-led Legislature to target unionized workers.

Last year, a judge slammed a so-called “paycheck protection” law signed by Greitens that limited the power of public-sector unions by allowing workers to decline to let the union spend part of its dues for political purposes.

The law also required regular recertification elections, and raised the bar on what is necessary for those elections to succeed.

In 2018, Missouri voters solidly rejected an attempt to make Missouri a “right to work” state.

The law, championed by Greitens, would have allowed private-sector workers to not pay dues to a labor organization.

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