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3 unions sue state over Merit System change

3 unions sue state over Merit System change

October 11th, 2018 by Bob Watson in Local News

LED exterior lights illuminate the Missouri Capitol in this photo from January 2018.

Photo by Mark Wilson /News Tribune.

Three unions, representing a number of state employees, said in a lawsuit announced Wednesday that at least some parts of the new state law — that made major changes to the 70-year-old Merit System for state employees — violate provisions of the Missouri Constitution.

The unions want the Cole County Circuit Court to block portions or all of the new law.

Their target is Senate Bill 1007, which was sponsored in the Legislature last spring by now-Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, and was signed into law June 1 by then-Gov. Eric Greitens, on the day he resigned and turned the governor's duties over to then-Lt. Gov. Mike Parson.

"Former Gov. Greitens may have thought he could throw away the hard-won rights of dedicated public service workers on his way out the door," AFSCME Council 61 President Danny Homan said, in a news release. "But the Missouri Constitution says otherwise.

"We are fighting this unjust and illegal attack on the rights of our members every step of the way, and we are confident that justice will prevail."

Office of Administration spokeswoman Brittany Ruess said, "We have no comment at this time."

The unions filing the suit are the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO, Council 61; the Communications Workers of America, AFL-CIO, Local 6355; and Service Employees International Union, Local 1.

Defendants are the state government as a whole; the Office of Administration; and the departments of Social Services, Health and Senior Services, Agriculture, Corrections, Mental Health, Natural Resources, Public Safety and Revenue.

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The lawsuit also targeted the state Board of Probation and Parole, which is part of the Corrections Department, and, within Public Safety, the Missouri Highway Patrol; Missouri Veterans Commission; Adjutant General; and State Emergency Management Agency.

In the 32-page lawsuit, the plaintiffs noted: "Senate Bill 1007 made drastic changes to essential terms and conditions of employment for state employees by purportedly designating them as 'at will' employees, thereby subjecting them to termination for 'no reason or any reason,' with the exception of a small group of state employees who are required to have merit system protections pursuant to terms of federal funding."

Created in the mid-1940s, the system was, according to the Office of Administration's web page, "designed to protect employees from arbitrary actions, personal favoritism, and political coercion," and most recently covered about 56 percent of all state employees, while the others worked at non-Merit departments and agencies.

The new law put all state employees under the same, non-Merit regulations. This includes removing the testing requirements to qualify for a job, and canceling the appeals process for a Merit System employee who was disciplined or fired.

The lawsuit argued state officials and the heads of various departments or agencies "unilaterally imposed (new) policies" when the new law went into effect, and those changes "purport to prohibit state employees from bargaining, through their union, for a requirement that discipline be imposed only 'for cause' — an essential term and condition of employment that Plaintiffs have negotiated for decades, and that is reflected in contracts between Plaintiffs and Defendants, and that protect employees from arbitrary termination for no reason or any reason."

The lawsuit said collective bargaining rights are protected by at least two sections of Missouri's Constitution.

In its Bill of Rights, the lawsuit said, Article I, Section 29, "obligates both public employers and unions to bargain in good faith, to enter into contracts securing agreed-upon terms, and to refrain from making unilateral changes to significant terms and conditions of employment."

And Article I, Section 13, the lawsuit said, "guarantees '[t]hat no law impairing the obligation of contracts can be enacted.'"

However, the lawsuit argued, the state officials' changes to employees' work rules and conditions ignored contractual rights that had already been agreed to — in contracts that still are in effect and in contracts that expired this year, but included terms that they remained in effect until a new contract was negotiated.

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"The adoption of SB 1007 and Defendants' unilateral adoption of emergency rules and policies, and their refusal to consider grievances, have impaired the obligations in the (collective bargaining agreements) of Plaintiffs to the detriment of Plaintiffs and bargaining unit employees," the lawsuit said.

"This impairment is substantial and those eliminations cannot be justified as reasonable and necessary to serve an important public purpose."

The case was assigned to Circuit Judge Jon Beetem.

In the news release announcing the lawsuit, SEIU Local 1 Vice President Nancy Cross said: "SB 1007 hurts thousands of Missouri working families as well as all those who rely on state services.

"SEIU Local 1 members are coming together to reverse this unconstitutional attack by wealthy special interests on the rights of the working people of our state."

And, CWA Local 6355 President Natashia Pickens added: "SB 1007 is an attack on our fundamental rights as workers to organize and our ability to collectively bargain.

"Unions of public workers have the infrastructure to protect workers from unjust actions in the workplace and fight for the crucial services that members of our communities need to survive."