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Judge orders Parson back to bargaining table for union contracts covering more than 13,000 state employees

Judge orders Parson back to bargaining table for union contracts covering more than 13,000 state employees

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Training correctional officers for Missouri prisons

New corrections officers continue their training after boot camp on April 4, 2019, at the Northeast Correctional Center in Bowling Green, Mo. They are from left: Bethany Henson, Nicholas Viera, and Timothy Snider. They were acting as if they were checking on inmates in their cells, even though they were in an empty cell building. Photo by J.B. Forbes, jforbes@post-dispatch.com

JEFFERSON CITY — A Cole County judge has ordered Gov. Mike Parson’s administration to resume contract talks with three labor unions representing some of the lowest-paid government workers in the nation.

Circuit Judge Jon Beetem ruled last week that a 2018 law, signed by former Gov. Eric Greitens on his final day in office, was unconstitutional and does not restrict collective bargaining.

Beetem directed the state to resume contract talks in good faith with the unions. He also ordered state agencies to begin processing grievances workers have filed over the past three years.

The judge said the state must abide by the terms of the now-expired contracts until a new agreement is reached or an impasse occurs.

The ruling is the latest court win for workers who have fought against Republican-led attempts to weaken their power.

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

“It’s a reversal of the clear attacks on the rights of working people,” said Nick Desideri, a spokesman for SEIU, which represents an estimated 2,000 patient care professionals, probation and parole officers and probation and parole assistants.

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

“We’re ecstatic. We’re happy to see it,” said Tim Cutt, director of the Missouri Correctional Officers Association, which has an estimated 4,600 members.

The 2018 law championed by Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe when he was a senator, altered the state’s merit system by making it easier to hire, fire and reward workers.

The Republican-backed 2018 law put all state employees under the same, nonmerit regulations. The state removed testing requirements to qualify for jobs and terminated the appeals process for a merit system employee who was disciplined or fired.

The lawsuit argued that collective bargaining rights are protected by at least two sections of Missouri’s Constitution, including Article 1, which “guarantees ‘(t)hat no law impairing the obligation of contracts can be enacted.’”

Although Parson has worked to boost the pay for state workers, his administration has not negotiated new contracts with the unions since he took over for Greitens.

The administration last year blamed the pandemic for slowing talks.

In his 43-page decision, Beetem said the state violated the constitution by acting as if the law restricted collective bargaining “by repudiating labor agreements while they were in effect, refusing to process grievances, unilaterally changing terms of employment, and refusing to bargain in good faith over just cause protections, seniority as a factor in employment decisions, and grievance/arbitration procedures.”

The impasse over the new law, as well as a decision to stop withholding union dues from employee paychecks, has left the labor union representing correctional officers with fewer resources to represent its frontline workers.

The administration said it ended payroll deduction union dues in 2019 because the union’s contract had expired.

The administration also is balking at paying more than $114 million to prison guards who won a 2018 case alleging they were routinely not paid for work done once they arrived at their facilities.

A spokesman for the attorney general’s office, which is handling the case on behalf of Parson, did not respond to a request for comment.

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