Nebraska lawmakers pass compromise bill on public unions

Reuters News
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Posted: May 25, 2011 8:18 PM

By David Hendee

OMAHA, Neb (Reuters) - Nebraska lawmakers unanimously approved changes to collective bargaining for public workers on Wednesday but the debate was not as divisive as in some other states, and the outcome was a compromise.

The state's one-house legislature in Lincoln passed the measure on a 48-0 vote.

Unlike Wisconsin which saw massive demonstrations and angry debate, the Nebraska measure represented a compromise between Republicans keen to address deficits and Democrats keen to preserve the collective bargaining powers of public employees.

The measure essentially creates new operating guidelines for Nebraska's Commission of Industrial Relations, the unusual agency that has been resolving public sector labor disputes in the state since 1947.

Republican Governor Dave Heineman previously called the bill "a victory for taxpayers" and planned to sign it into law.

Labor rights disputes inspired contentious rallies this year in Wisconsin and Ohio. The National Conference of State Legislatures says lawmakers in 43 states introduced bills to alter collective bargaining for public employees.

The Nebraska bill provides more power for government to control spending and makes rulings from the state's one-of-a-kind Commission on Industrial Relations more predictable.

The five-member commission, whose members are appointed by the governor, decides labor disputes between public employee unions and their employers. It compares wages paid by similar cities, counties or school districts. Then it orders a "prevalent wage" that must be paid.

The bill gives more specific guidelines to the commission for deciding wage disputes. It also requires that pensions and other benefits be considered. When governments don't have the revenue to pay salary increases during bad economic times, the bill contains a provision allowing governments to adjust down the targeted range of compensation.

Some business and conservative groups had called on the Legislature to end collective bargaining and eliminate the commission. They said the system had allowed union wages and benefits to outpace private-sector compensation.

Labor groups were pleased the bill did not eliminate collective bargaining rights or do away with the independent, third-party commission.

(Reporting by David Hendee; Editing by James B. Kelleher and Greg McCune)