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Missouri stops collecting union dues for prison guards as they spar over labor contract

Missouri stops collecting union dues for prison guards as they spar over labor contract

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Training correctional officers for Missouri prisons

Correctional trainees line up to receive their certificates and their badges during a Missouri Department of Corrections graduation ceremony March 29, 2019, at the Pike County Fairgrounds pavilion near Bowling Green, Mo. In front is trainee Ebony Strickland.

Photo by J.B. Forbes, jforbes@post-dispatch.com

JEFFERSON CITY — In a maneuver that is putting pressure on the labor union representing Missouri prison guards, Gov. Mike Parson’s administration has stopped withholding dues from bimonthly paychecks.

The move has left the Missouri Correctional Officers Association with a funding shortfall as it continues to negotiate a new contract with the state for 5,000-plus guards and sergeants.

“It’s a pitiful attempt to bankrupt the organization,” said Tim Cutt, the union’s grievance officer.

The decision by the state came via a Dec. 9 letter from the Office of Administration, which Parson, a Republican, controls.

In the one-page letter, Stacy Neal, the director of the agency’s division of accounting, said the state would no longer withhold union dues because the bargaining unit is not covered by an existing labor agreement.

It is unclear why such a decision was made this month. The union and the state have been negotiating a new contract since the old one expired Sept. 18.

Union members have been working under the terms of the old contract while talks are underway.

Attempts to reach Neal and Office of Administration Commissioner Sarah Steelman were not successful Thursday.

Cutt suggested it is a negotiating tactic.

“They are dragging their feet,” Cutt said.

To counter the state’s move, union officials are attempting to enroll officers in a separate automatic payroll deduction program to keep the union operations afloat.

The results of that campaign won’t be known for several months, Cutt said.

Meantime, union programs such as hardship assistance, scholarships and reduced insurance benefits are in limbo.

The dust-up is the latest in an ongoing tug-of-war between Corrections officials and guards, who are among the lowest paid in the nation even after Parson earmarked money for raises in the current budget.

In August, top brass at the department blocked union representatives from talking with newly hired officers.

The association alleged that Corrections Director Anne Precythe barred the union from attending training classes, where it typically informed new employees about the role of the union and the parameters of its contract with the state.

In 2018, a Cole County jury awarded thousands of officers nearly $114 million in back pay.

In that case, guards alleged they were routinely not paid for work done once they arrived at the facility.

Money from that lawsuit has still not been paid.

Taxpayers also have been billed for millions of dollars in damages from sexual discrimination cases lodged by female prison workers.

The contract will cover correctional officers and their immediate supervisors at the state’s 20 prisons.

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