In the struggle between governors and unions over public employee costs, Nebraska would seem like an unlikely battleground. Teacher salaries are modest, workers pay toward their benefits and a right-to-work law prevails.
But Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman and the Republican-controlled Legislature have taken a bead this session at one aspect of state law that has produced occasional victories for unionized workers.
Lawmakers unveiled a package this week in response to frustration with the Commission of Industrial Relations, which resolves labor disputes between public workers and their employers. An anti-union sentiment in the wake of union battles in Wisconsin and Ohio led small-government groups and some lawmakers to call for an end to Nebraska's commission and collective bargaining rights.
Conservatives blame the commission for unpredictable changes in government personnel spending. Labor leaders and commission supporters have said the criticism is politically motivated, meant to take advantage of the sour national mood about government spending and of the election last fall of Republican candidates promising cutbacks.
"I've been in this job for 12 years and I can tell you, we've never had a session like this before," said Annette Hord, the commission's clerk and administrator. "There have been some bills brought to committee in the past, but none have gone very far. This year, there are more bills, and their impact is more widespread."
Six versions of legislation were introduced that, in different forms, would strip the commission's authority to set wages and work conditions, remove its jurisdiction over health and retirement benefits and exclude it from cases involving public school teachers. Some action is likely before the Legislature adjourns in June.
The new measure, billed as a compromise, now heads to the floor of Nebraska's one-house, officially nonpartisan Legislature. It was based on months of talks between city and school district groups, public employee unions and a representative for Gov. Dave Heineman.
Nebraska is among 31 states with boards that hear labor disputes, according to the Association of Labor Relations Agencies. Many were created as a compromise after public employee walkouts were banned.
The Nebraska commission, created in 1947 after a turbulent utility workers strike at the Lincoln Telephone Co., reviews about 25 cases a year. All five current members were appointed by Republican governors.
The commission has handled a range of disputes, ruling for employees in some cases and employers in others. In August, commission members ordered the city of Scottsbluff to reimburse its police officer bargaining unit for health insurance benefits it said were improperly withheld. In December, commission members ruled against an electrical workers union that challenged the Omaha Public Power District's tobacco-free workplace policy.
Union leaders say they seldom file cases because they are costly and might produce an unfavorable ruling. Preparing and presenting a case can cost between $30,000 and $100,000 for surveys of comparable wages or benefits, expert witnesses and legal fees, said Dan Quick, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers 1597 in Grand Island. "We avoid it whenever possible. It's too expensive. But we still need some way to settle disputes," he said.
Supporters of arbitration say that it means fewer disputes wind up in court.
"The strongest argument for interest arbitration is that it inoculates the public against strikes," said Martin Malin, a labor law expert at the Chicago-Kent College of Law.
But Heineman and some lawmakers say the panel's role makes controlling costs difficult for public agencies. The state's projected $943 million two-year budget deficit is increasing sentiment for a change.
"I've made it very, very clear that the stars are aligned," Heineman said. "This is the year to deal with some reform of the CIR, and if there's not action, then I think there's going to be an effort to repeal it by putting it on the ballot."
Nebraska's unions are weak compared to states such as Wisconsin and Ohio, the front line in battles over public employee benefits. Julie Dake Abel, executive director of the Nebraska chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said unionized state workers went without pay raises in the 2011-12 fiscal year. State workers also contribute 21 percent to the cost of their health insurance premiums, compared with an average of 6 percent in Wisconsin, said Abel.
Because Nebraska is a right-to-work state, unions cannot collect dues from workers who decline to pay them. The average teacher-pay of $44,968 ranked 43rd in the nation.
Scott S. Moore, an Omaha lawyer who represents employers in labor cases, said he thinks the commission should be preserved, but should issue recommendations rather than rulings. He said it should also be barred from comparing workplace pay rates and conditions to those elsewhere in the region.
"That's the source of frustration among your school boards and city planners," Moore said. "You're constantly in this market escalation. If one district bumps its pay $1,000, that forces everyone up. You can't go in and say, 'This is a tough budget year. We need to hold the wages.'"