Unions file complaint over pay raise defeat

2011-05-25T19:25:00Z 2011-05-25T23:50:05Z Unions file complaint over pay raise defeatBy CHARLES S. JOHNSON Gazette State Bureau The Billings Gazette

HELENA — Three public employee unions filed an unfair labor practice complaint Wednesday over the 2011 Legislature's refusal to pass the pay raises for state workers they had negotiated with Gov. Brian Schweitzer.

The MEA-MFT, Montana Public Employees Association and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees named the state and House Speaker Mike Milburn, R-Cascade, as defendants in a complaint filed with the state Board of Personnel Appeals.

Union leaders and officials in the state Department of Labor and Industry, where the board is housed, called the action unprecedented.

"We are asserting in our unfair labor practice (filing) that whereas we bargained in good faith with the governor, the Legislature did not bargain in good faith with us," said Eric Feaver, MEA-MFT president.

Feaver said the complaint is one of many options available to the unions, including a lawsuit and a strike, although he wasn't recommending a work stoppage.

"We are not done working hard for state employees who deserve far better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick that they just got from this Legislature," he said.

Quinton Nyman, executive director of the MPEA, said Republican legislators knew the state had enough money to afford the pay raises, but "they just didn't want to do it."

Timm Twardoski, executive director of AFSCME Council 9, warned of state workers' slipping morale and the possibility of an "exodus" of employees because of the pay freeze.

The complaint came on the heels of the Republican-led Legislature last month rejecting the pay deal that unions had negotiated with the Democratic governor's administration last fall. It called for a 1 percent raise for state employees in January 2012 and a 3 percent hike a year later at a state cost of $21 million.

State workers already are under a two-year pay freeze, under an agreement reached before the 2009 Legislature when the economy was tanking. Those making $45,000 a year or less received a one-time $450 one-time payment.

If the unions prevail, Feaver said they hope to renegotiate with Schweitzer for even higher pay raises for employees than the original ones and ask him to call a special legislative session to approve them.

However, the makeup of the Legislature hasn't changed since it adjourned in late April. Republicans still hold a huge 68-32 majority in the House, which turned down the proposed pay deal, and a 28-22 margin in the Senate, which never saw it.

The unions acknowledged in the complaint that the Legislature has the authority to approve or reject the negotiated pay plan. However, they said the duty to bargain in good faith requires that all parties deal with one anther with an open, fair mind through a legitimate process and sincerely try to overcome obstacles.

"The manner in which the Legislature handled House Bill 13 (the pay bill) utterly failed to meet this standard," the complaint said.

The unions said HB13 stalled in the House Appropriations Committee for much of the session until it passed out the bill 10 days before adjournment. The House then twice failed to pass HB13.

Milburn disputed the claim that the House stalled in considering the pay bill.

"We took into consideration HB13 early in the session, and it was carefully and thoroughly considered throughout the entire session, along with our other main spending bills, such as education, the bonding bill and HB2, the main appropriations bill," the House speaker said. "Being a period of recession, final decisions could not be made until all pieces of the puzzle came together."

Milburn added, "In a time with little money, it takes the entire session to come to a conclusion."

He said many factors besides money were involved in deciding whether to pass the bill.

The complaint disputed GOP claims that there wasn't enough money to afford the pay plan.

"Put simply, there is no way the state's ever-strengthening fiscal situation could not support the state employee pay plan as negotiated between the governor and the unions as included in the governor's 2013 biennium budget," it said.

Schweitzer was out of state Wednesday, but a spokesman, Jason O'Neill, said administration officials are reviewing their options.

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