Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Fire Fighter Decision Threatens Nationwide Public Labor Movement (Updated)

We published our post “A Heavy Blow to Public Collective Bargaining” on Wednesday, April 8. But exactly a week later, it received an avalanche of direct visits from all over the country. And the visitor roster is an ominous development for public employee unions all across the United States.

Our post concerned a decision by the county’s Labor Relations Administrator (LRA) on the issue of whether the County Executive was required to propose a budget that included the Fire Fighters’ cost of living increases. The union cited sections of the county code requiring the Executive to respect the results of collective bargaining agreements he negotiated. The County Executive’s position was that the code did not bind him in his role of proposing a budget since that was a “legislative” function. The LRA agreed with the County Executive and the Fire Fighters are mulling an appeal.

The matter remained local until yesterday. Suddenly, the post began to be emailed all across the country. At one point, direct visits to that post accounted for more than a quarter of our traffic, an unusual event for this blog. Here are just a few of the entities who accessed it:

State of Arkansas
State of Maryland
Commonwealth of Massachusetts
Miami-Dade County, Florida
City of Milwaukee
State of Minnesota
New York State Office of Comptroller
Oakland County, Michigan
Prince George’s County, Maryland
Public Employees Retirement Systems of Ohio
Stanislaus County, California
City of Tallahassee
Vermont Public Schools
Wayne County, Michigan
Wisconsin Public Schools

Many state and county governments around the country are experiencing financial problems similar to Montgomery County. More than a few of them are looking for a mechanism to escape their collectively bargained obligations. The LRA’s decision gives them a possible model for doing that.

But it could be worse. The Fire Fighters are considering an appeal to the court system. If they appeal and lose, the resulting court decision will be even more dangerous. Governments all over the U.S. could mimic the court’s reasoning to bust contracts everywhere.

We hear that there may be a way to step back from the brink. Our informants tell us that the Leggett administration is ready to join the Fire Fighters in asking that the LRA’s decision be vacated. That would rob the decision of its value as a precedent and render court action moot. In return, the administration would ask the Fire Fighters to stop pursuit of their cost of living increases. The Fire Fighters do not have much to lose by doing so since the County Council will certainly refuse to fund their increases even if the Executive proposes them. Everyone gets something out of the deal: the Fire Fighters can erase a bad labor decision, Leggett can resolve the last union contract issue and the rest of the nation’s labor movement will have one less problem to confront.

The deal makes sense. Will it happen?

Update: The Gazette has more.