Bill would curtail bargaining power of public sector unions in Kansas

Kansas lawmakers are considering a bill that would significantly scale back the collective bargaining power of public sector unions.

Senate Bill 179, which had a hearing in the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday, would define “conditions of employment” to exclusively mean salaries and wages in future contract negotiations between state and local governments and employees.

That would mean that sick leave, insurance benefits and retirement benefits, for example, would no longer be included in negotiations between municipalities and police and firefighters’ unions.

Sen. Jeff Melcher, R-Leawood, the bill’s sponsor, contended that reducing the number of negotiable items would free up money for municipalities to raise wages of workers.

“Wouldn’t that make it easier then to be able to attract and retain the quality workers you’re looking for?” he said during the hearing.

The bill also abolishes the Public Employees Relations Board, a state board with which public employees can file grievances against their employers, as the firefighters union did against the city of Wichita in 2013 regarding promotion processes.

The bill would transfer the board’s authority to the secretary of labor, but it would eliminate public employees’ ability to file grievances and the impartial arbitration process.

Rebecca Proctor, president of the Kansas Organization of State Employees, said the bill “completely silences the employees’ ability to have a say in their workforce.”

The bill has rankled public sector unions but has the backing of the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, Americans For Prosperity and the Kansas Policy Institute. The Kansas Department of Labor also testified in support.

Dave Dorsey, an analyst with the Kansas Policy Institute, said narrowing the number of items that could be negotiated would “reduce the likelihood of having an impasse” during negotiations.

Kristen Marr, president of the Kansas Fraternal Order of Police, testified that the bill would jeopardize public safety by deterring people from police work.

“We have difficulty right now finding and hiring applicants to fill our positions. Just in the police department alone we are down 22 positions,” said Marr, a member of the Topeka Police Department. “If we don’t have these added benefits … I fear we won’t be able to maintain our staffing levels.”

Marr noted that municipalities enter into collective bargaining agreements with employees voluntarily and questioned the motivation for the bill.

Chester Pinkston, a watch commander with the Wichita Police Department and past president of the Wichita lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, said the department had to negotiate items “as simple as being able to guarantee consecutive days off” into their contract, and eliminating that power could be a major blow to morale.

“I’m not sure the intent of the bill,” Pinkston said. “We’re already having trouble attracting quality applicants. If something like this were to go, I think an awful lot of public employees would seek employment elsewhere.”

“Public employees do not have the ability to strike. … It just seems like it’s a little bit one-sided already,” he continued. “Kansas is not a strong labor state in the first place, and this is the one measure that gives employees an opportunity to have their say.”

Supporters of the bill contended that it would increase the power of local taxpayers. Municipalities where employees don’t currently bargain collectively would have to get voter approval to do so. Eric Stafford, the lobbyist for the Chamber of Commerce, said this would “give the taxpayers control over their government.”

“That’s the strongest form of local control, is letting voters decide,” he said.

During the hearing, Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, asked Melcher if he had been approached by anyone to introduce the bill. Melcher replied that he hadn’t.

Holland then asked Melcher about his participation in conferences held by the American Legislative Exchange Council, more commonly known as ALEC, a conservative policy organization that has backed anti-union legislation in other states.

Sen. Julia Lynn, R-Olathe, the committee’s chair, called this line of questioning inappropriate and moved to cut it off.

“I just don’t think it’s related,” Lynn said after the hearing. “An organization that some of us belong to – for whatever reason we belong to those – does not dictate our policy here in Kansas. Period. And it’s nonrelated. Their involvement, their stand is not related to what we do in Kansas, and they had nothing to do with this bill at all.”

Melcher said ALEC had not approached him. After the hearing, he said his goal in limiting collective bargaining is “to reduce that divide between one side versus the other.”

Reach Bryan Lowry at 785-296-3006 or blowry@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @BryanLowry3.

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