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Senate OKs union restriction

Public-employee collective bargaining ban goes to House by Michael R. Wickline | March 10, 2021 at 6:56 a.m.
FILE — The state Capitol is shown in this file photo.

A bill that would bar public employers from recognizing labor unions or employee associations as collective bargaining agents or entering into a collective bargaining contracts cleared the Arkansas Senate on Tuesday.

The Senate voted 24-6 to send Senate Bill 341, by Sen. Bob Ballinger, R-Ozark, to the House for further consideration. The action came a day after the bill cleared the Senate Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee over objections from representatives of the Arkansas Education Association, Arkansas AFL-CIO and Arkansas Professional Firefighters Association.

Ballinger said his bill would prohibit state agencies, public schools and higher education institutions from engaging in collective bargaining with their employees, but it would exempt cities and counties.

An employee who strikes or walks away from his duties with a public employer, obstructs the activity or operation of the employer or impedes the operations of the employer when acting in concert with one or more employees would be terminated under the bill.

Ballinger said the Little Rock School District doesn't currently have a collective bargaining agreement, but the bill "prevents it in the future."

In 2019, the Arkansas Board of Education voted to end recognition of the Little Rock Education Association as a collective bargaining agent for teachers in the Little Rock School District. The highly contentious vote came as the district was under state control as a result of being in the "Level 5 -- in need of intensive support" category of the state's school district classification system because of chronically low test scores at a handful of schools in the district.

The teacher's union had been recognized as a collective bargaining agent since 1966. Teresa Gordon, president of the Little Rock Education Association, couldn't be reached for comment by telephone on Tuesday afternoon.

Ballinger said the bill would still allow public employees to form associations, "but from a policy decision we are not going to have collective bargaining."

"We are going to bargain individually," he said.

Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, pressed Ballinger about why he believes the bill is necessary.

Public employees work for citizens of the state, so they are vested with the responsibility of the public trust, Ballinger said.

"So if you are a school teacher vested with the responsibility of educating kids then if you are to strike then you are actually working against that," Ballinger said. "You are striking against the citizens of the state of Arkansas."

Elliott questioned Ballinger about why his bill exempted law enforcement officers and firefighters.

"The answer to that is that is a policy decision that should be made on the local level," Ballinger said.

Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, told her colleagues that public-sector employees should have a voice in their working conditions and benefits.

"When you take away the right of bargaining, we are taking away the rights" of public employees who have concerns and want to sit down at the table to ask their employers to give merit to their concerns, she said.

Chesterfield, who is a retired teacher, said the state's right-to-work law has resulted in a right-to-work for lower wages in the state.

Elliott said that "it is a wonderful thing" that Ballinger appreciates the police officers and firefighters enough that they would be treated as professionals and continue to have collective bargaining rights under his bill.

"But how do you square leaving out everybody else? How is that even possible that you get to that conclusion simply as a matter of policy?" she said.

Elliott, who is a retired teacher, said serving as a union member helped make her a better teacher and a better advocate for her students because she could voice her concerns.

"We weren't treated like little girls and boys," she said. "We were treated like professionals."

Under SB341, the definition of public employer would include an agency, department, board, commission, division, office, bureau, council, authority or other instrumentality of state as well as a state-supported college, university, technical college, community college or other institution of higher education or a department, division or agency of a state higher education institution.

Under the bill, a public employer also would include the state Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, the Administrative Office of the Courts, circuit courts and prosecuting attorneys' offices and public school districts.

The bill would exempt "public safety officers," including law enforcement and firefighters from the collective-bargaining restriction.

Sen. Jim Hendren, an independent from Sulphur Springs, said he understood that the bill would place at risk federal funding of about $1 million a year for Razorback Transit at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, and it would take an amendment to fix that.

Ballinger said university and other transit officials were trying to determine whether the bill need to be amended to ensure no federal funding was put in danger. He said the bill was filed three weeks ago and "this issue only popped up in the last few days."

Ballinger said the original concern was that federal transit funding for other mass transit operations in the state would be jeopardized, "but they already have been amended out of this bill" by exempting cities and counties.

Rock Region Metro "has been in touch with Sen. Ballinger to outline the threat to public transit federal funding in Arkansas the bill provides," said Becca Green, director of public engagement for Rock Region Metro.

The Urban Mass Transportation Act requires, as a precondition to the receipt of Federal Transit Administration grant monies, prohibition of restrictions on collective bargaining rights, she said. Federal funding supports transit vehicles, facilities and, to some extent, annual operating expenses, she said.

"Without federal funding, Arkansas residents and visitors who depend on public transportation would lose transit services, so it is important to METRO and our peer transit agencies in Arkansas that this bill not apply to public transit employees," she said.

Ballinger said Tuesday night that he plans to amend the bill in the House to ensure that federal funding for Razorback Transit and other transit agencies would not be jeopardized by his bill.

Asked his position on SB341, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Tuesday in a written statement that "I will review the bill and watch it as it moves through the legislative process."

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