Educators' groups weigh in on collective bargaining case

Tuesday, November 5, 2002

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Education groups on both sides of the philosophical divide over public-sector collective bargaining have offered advice to the Missouri Supreme Court on a case that could lead to full bargaining rights for teachers and other government employees.

The case is brought by two former educators with the Jefferson City School District and their union representative, who are asking the court to reverse its long-standing interpretation that the Missouri Constitution's protection of collective bargaining rights applies only to private-sector workers. The court will hear the case, which was dismissed by two lower courts, on Wednesday.

Two friend-of-the-court briefs were submitted by groups opposed to collective bargaining for teachers. One was filed by the Missouri State Teachers Association and Missouri Council of School Administrators. The second was submitted by the Missouri School Boards Association and joined by the Cooperating School Districts of Greater St. Louis and the Missouri Municipal League.

Urging the court to allow public-sector collective bargaining is the Missouri National Education Association.

Says it's bad for everyone

In their brief, MSTA and MCSA argue that giving teachers the right to enter into binding contracts with school districts would be bad for students, taxpayers and even teachers.

The groups contend collective bargaining would strip elected local school boards of much of their authority to make decisions, hamper the ability of administrators to run their schools efficiently and create an adversarial environment between labor and management.

Public-sector labor relations differ from those in the private sector, they claim.

"Public schools in Missouri do not have the same ability as private sector industries to unilaterally raise their prices to offset the increased costs that routinely accompany adoption of collective bargaining," the groups wrote. "That would require a tax increase, which can only be accomplished by a vote of the people."

The groups said that if voters were unwilling to impose a tax to pay for wage hikes negotiated as part of a binding labor agreement, districts would have no choice but slash spending on equipment and supplies at the expense of students' educational opportunities.

Says it will lead to strikes

MSTA and MCSA also claim bargaining power would lead to teacher strikes, despite laws forbidding such action by public employees.

For its part, the school board association says the court settled this issue long ago when ruling that only the legislature can extend bargaining rights to public workers.

"It is clear from the legislative actions taken over the last 20-plus years that the legislature's intent is not to thrust full public sector collect bargaining on the citizens of this state," MSBA wrote.

However, MNEA counters that the court got it wrong in the 1947 case City of Springfield v. Clouse, reading into the state Constitution an exemption from bargaining rights for public workers that doesn't exist in the text. That case has guided in court on public sector labor matters for the last 55 years.

"If Clouse was incorrectly decided as a matter of state constitutional law, it is this court's duty to overrule it," MNEA wrote.

The group claims the court in 1947 ignored the clear language of the relevant constitutional provision in favor of the "fundamentally flawed" argument that collective bargaining would violate the separation of powers doctrine by unconstitutionally delegating away the legislative branch's authority to set wages, working conditions and determine other labor relations issues.

A school district entering into a binding contract with its employees that it cannot unilaterally change is no different than a district contracting to purchase land or build a new building, MNEA says. No district would argue such contracts couldn't be legally enforced if it tried to back out of the agreement, the group contends.

MNEA also says fears of strained labor relations and higher local taxes are overblown.

The upcoming case is Thruston, et al, v. Jefferson City School District.

mpowers@semissourian.com

(573) 635-4608

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