Labor dispute reforms considered

The Business and Labor Committee heard testimony April 13 on a proposed amendment that would make changes to the Nebraska Commission on Industrial Relations (CIR), the state’s arbiter of labor disputes between public sector employees and government employers.

Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop introduced an amendment, AM1116 to LB397, which he said would address concerns regarding consistency and predictability in the state’s dispute resolution process. The CIR acts according to general guidelines found in state law, Lathrop said, but most of the rules governing their actions have been established by case law.

The goal of the amendment, he said, is to provide specific guidelines in state law in a number of areas that impact labor disputes. Lathrop said the proposal is a compromise between labor and management that resulted from months of negotiations.

“We did not hear a call for repeal of the CIR,” he said, “nor did we hear a call to end collective bargaining. What we heard was a call to reform the Commission on Industrial Relations.”

Among other provisions, the amendment would set the following criteria for choosing an array for wage comparison purposes:

  • remove the rule of evidence requirement;
  • provide a preference for geographic proximity;
  • specify a 70 percent match of duties performed and time spent performing those duties;
  • set criteria for the size of comparable out-of-state cities and metropolitan statistical areas;
  • allow public and private comparisons when matches are appropriate and available; and
  • set the preferred array size at between seven and 13, with as few as five allowed if all array members are Nebraska employers.

If a comparison were made with an out-of-state city or metropolitan statistical area, the amendment would require that wage information be adjusted to reflect Nebraska’s cost of living.

“I call it ‘Nebraska-tizing’ the numbers,” Lathrop said.

The amendment also would incorporate health insurance and pension benefits into an hourly rate value. Lathrop said the provision would allow cities to receive credit for benefits provided to workers, rather than relying solely on wage comparisons within an array.

Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler supported the amendment, saying it represents a reasonable compromise. The proposal will not solve all concerns with the CIR, he said, but added that incremental reform can be meaningful.

“Compromise is the nature of how we all get along and how we move ahead as a society to make progress,” Beutler said. “It is always finding the center of things – finding the balance – that is the art of the democratic process.”

Jerry Pigsley, a Lincoln labor lawyer, also supported the amendment, saying it will increase predictability in labor disputes.

“The guidelines will no longer be guidelines, they will be rules,” he said.

Tonn Ostergard, testifying on behalf of the Lincoln, Omaha and Nebraska chambers of commerce, opposed the amendment. He said the compromise fails to include cost containment measures and does not allow elected officials to manage their own budgets.

Dave Nabity of the Omaha Alliance for the Private Sector also opposed the proposal, saying it puts management at a “huge disadvantage” in labor disputes. Cities should be allowed to determine staffing and public safety needs, he said, while also finding ways to limit expenditures.

“Omaha needs to be able to cut costs,” Nabity said. “Omaha is in a crisis situation.”

The committee voted 6-1 to advance the proposal to general file.

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