Missouri high court dodges bargaining issue

Friday, December 13, 2002

Business Today

JEFFERSON CITY -- The Missouri Supreme Court in late November sidestepped deciding a challenge to the long-standing legal interpretation that the Missouri Constitution's protection of collective bargaining rights doesn't apply to public sector employees.

The case was brought by two former educators in Jefferson City School District and their union representative who claimed the court wrongly ignored the plain language of the state constitution when it created an exemption for public workers in a landmark 1947 case that has guided state policy on collective bargaining ever since.

The current case was being closely watched by groups on both sides of the philosophical divide over public sector collective bargaining. Supporters said government workers deserve a say in matters such as wages and working conditions. Opponents feared that if court reversed its 55-year-old precedent it would inevitably increasing the cost of running public agencies and open the door to employee strikes.

The court heard arguments in the case on Nov. 6. Instead of issuing a decision, it ordered the matter retransferred to the Missouri Court of Appeals Western District in Kansas City, which had previously ruled the plaintiffs had no legal standing to file the lawsuit.

Since neither educator is still employed by the school district, the western district said the redress they sought - grievance hearings attended by a union representative of their choosing - could not be granted, rendering their claims moot.

If the western district court readopts its earlier opinion, the Supreme Court's order, signed by Judge Michael Wolff, instructs it to direct the Cole County judge who originally heard the case to dismiss it for "failure to state a justiciable controversy."

Ronald Gladney, the St. Louis attorney representing the plaintiffs, said the lack of a decision by the Supreme Court preserves for a future case the issue of whether public employees are constitutionally entitled to collective bargaining rights.

"It is not what we were hoping for, but it is half a loaf," Gladney said. "If a case is dismissed on justicibility grounds, it is not being dismissed on its merits." Gladney said that other public sector workers who assert collective bargaining rights would have standing to file a lawsuit, so long as they still hold their jobs. In the present case, the district declined to renew the contracts of the legislators in question before they initiated court action.

The district's attorney, Thomas Mickes of Chesterfield, agreed the overall collective bargaining issue likely isn't settled but said his clients are pleased the high court saw no reason to overturn the lower courts.

She claims her building principal retaliated against her for filing grievances related to classroom conditions. Fern Ward, a principal at another school, says she was denied access to the grievance procedure after district administrators reduced her duties. Neither educator's contract was renewed at the end of the school year.

The third plaintiff, Luana Gifford, was president of the Missouri Federation of Teachers and School-Related Personnel. She claimed the district violated her rights to represent Thruston and Ward.

In their lawsuit, the plaintiffs asserted rights granted by Article I, Section 29 of the Missouri Constitution, which says: "That employees shall have the right to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing."

However, the Supreme Court in the 1947 case City of Springfield vs. Clouse ruled the provision doesn't cover public sector workers. The court said that under the separation of powers doctrine, enforceable collective bargaining by public employees would be an unconstitutional delegation of the legislative branch's authority to make labor decisions.

While the Clouse decision has been cited in numerous subsequent cases, the court has never directly revisited its reasoning.

The current case is Thruston, et al, vs. Jefferson City School District.

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