Bill seeks more power for cities in labor arbitration

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When “essential” public employees like police and firefighters disagree with their employers over how much they should get paid, arbitrators are called in to settle the disputes. At a time of recurring budget deficits, some feel the arbitrators are being too generous to the employees.

Sponsored by Rep. Linda Runbeck (R-Circle Pines), HF501 would require arbitrators to consider cities and counties’ financial problems when awarding labor contracts.

The House Government Operations and Elections Committee approved the bill on a 7-6 roll call vote. It now goes to the House Civil Law Committee. There is no Senate companion.

Under the state’s Public Employment Labor Relations Act, “essential employees” – mostly public safety, health care and correctional workers – do not have the right to strike. Instead, they must solve labor contract disputes with their employers via arbitration.

Laura Kushner, director of human resources for the League of Minnesota Cities, said arbitrators have a “built-in bias” in favor of public employee unions. She said even in cash-strapped cities where the “nonessential” workers agreed to wage freezes, arbitrators have awarded pay increases. As evidence, she cited two separate cases – one in Brainerd, the other in Edina.

“Both of those arbitrators basically ignored the pattern that had been set in the city for 0 percent wage increases and ordered 3 percent wage increases in an economic climate where those cities just felt that was completely out of line,” Kushner said.

The bill would require arbitrators to give “substantial weight” to issues like local government aid cuts, property tax burdens and the impact of levy limits. It would also forbid them from considering an employer’s budget reserves when determining their ability to pay. Finally, it would prevent arbitrators from awarding increases over and above what other unions get from that same employer.

Union leaders derided the bill as an attack on public employees’ collective bargaining rights, and said it would reverse several decades of precedents on labor relations. Some committee members agreed.

“I think this is yet another in a series of initiatives that we’ve had that are meant to erode our labor relations system,” said Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-Mpls).